Big Sur fire grows slightly to 550 acres; 5 percent contained
By Virginia Hennessey, Phillip Molnar and Larry Parsons Monterey Herald
Posted: 12/17/2013 08:31:34 AM PST
Firefighters defend a home from a wildland fire in the Pfeiffer Ridge area in Big Sur, Calif. on Monday December 16, 2013. (Photo David Royal/ Monterey County Herald)
BIG SUR -- A wildfire in the Pfeiffer Ridge area of the Los Padres National Forest grew slightly overnight and is now 5 percent contained, officials said Tuesday morning.
The fire near state Highway 1 consumed about 550 acres, 50 acres more than the previous estimate. About 400 firefighters are now battling the fire that has burned at least 15 homes and forced 100 people to evacuate since sparking arouind midnight Sunday.
Meanwhile, residents waited Monday night to learn if their homes were destroyed.
Fire officials said late Monday they didn't know how many homes were destroyed, partly because of the smoke that grounded air tankers during parts of the day. The Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade's website put the number at 15 to 20 houses, one of them belonging to its fire chief, Martha Karstens.
At a press conference Monday evening, a tearful Karstens said the tragedy really had not sunk in yet.
"I'm just trying to function as a chief," she said, adding that she had lost everything.
More than 100 residents were evacuated from Pfeiffer Ridge Road, some after receiving calls from the county's automated alert system. It was unknown when they would be allowed to return. Harold Cook, deputy incident commander for the U.S. Forest Service, said the blaze was "zero percent contained."
By late evening, it remained that way. Around 9:15 p.m., officials said they still couldn't calculate the exact size of the fire.
"Due to the heavy smoke and rough terrain, the acreage size of the fire will become more accurate as the smoke clears and better mapping becomes available," the Forest Service reported in an incident update.
More than 600 firefighters were on scene, the update said.
Shortly before 6 p.m. Monday, the county Office of Emergency Services issued an "evacuation watch," or voluntary evacuation, for the areas of Sycamore Canyon and Pious Ridge. The alert stated that there was a "threat to life and property" but stopped short of making evacuation mandatory.
The American Red Cross fed residents Monday night at the Big Sur Grange and was in the process of determining where it would open an overnight shelter. The SPCA for Monterey County was also on hand to assist with evacuated pets and large animals.
About 100 homes lost power and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. crews couldn't get in to assess the damage. In a bit of good news, the California Highway Patrol said Highway 1 would remain open unless the fire crossed to the east side.
Forest Service officials warned drivers to be aware that the highway will likely be crowded with emergency vehicles.
Captain Cooper Elementary School closed Monday and will hold classes at Carmel River School on Tuesday and beyond until the school is cleared for air quality. A regular bus schedule and school day is planned for Carmel Middle School and Carmel High School students unless the road conditions change. Andrew Molera State Park also was closed.
The fire broke out shortly after midnight Sunday between Pfeiffer Ridge and Sycamore Canyon west of Highway 1. The cause has not been determined and no injuries have been reported.
Big Sur restaurants opened their doors and kitchens for the hundreds of firefighters battling the blaze.
"This is what the community does," local Anna Davey said.
Crews came from the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire, the volunteer fire brigade and numerous other departments, including 60 inmates from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Gabilan Conservation Camp in Soledad. Though air tankers were grounded for parts of the day, crews carried on an air attack with helicopters.
They fought the fire in weather that topped 80 degrees. Offshore winds kept the blaze on the west side of Highway 1, but fire officials cautioned that there were dozens of homes between the fire and the sea.
Susan Bradley, president of the Big Sur Board of Economic Development, was out of state feeling helpless as she waited for news from her daughter, Ariana Satayathum, who moved back to Big Sur two weeks ago. She said she knew of four families that had lost their homes, including one couple who moved to Carmel Highlands last week and were waiting for escrow to close on their Big Sur home.
Bradley said it seems that some sort of disaster strikes Big Sur every year. She recalled housing nine people during the 2008 Basin Complex Fire. Last year she and her daughter were separated for Christmas by the rock slide that closed Highway 1.
Despite recurring calamities, Monterey County spokeswoman Maia Carroll said officials were dismayed to learn that only 125 Big Sur residents had signed up for instant telephone alerts with the county. She encouraged residents to register their cell phones for fire-related updates at http://alertmontereycounty.org/