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Fight and flight as fires close in

Residents in Big Sur and Goleta must choose to hunker down or head out.

July 03, 2008|Catherine Saillant and Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writers
  • Kurt Mayer, left, who owns Big Sur Center Deli and General Store, and Jason Fann, who owns Big Sur Spirit Center, can only watch as the fire burns close to their businesses along Highway 1.
Kurt Mayer, left, who owns Big Sur Center Deli and General Store, and Jason… (Robert Durell / Los Angeles…)

GOLETA, CALIF. — Fires raged in both Northern and Southern California on Wednesday, with the stubborn blaze in Big Sur taking a turn for the worse and a new one near Goleta causing widespread power outages and burning within about a mile of neighborhoods.

In Big Sur, the 11-day-old Basin Complex fire jumped a containment line Wednesday morning, forcing more evacuations and shutting down Highway 1 -- the coastal area's principal road -- for about 30 miles. In Goleta, the 1,200-acre Gap fire took out a major Southern California Edison power line, blacking out large areas of the south coast. Authorities there urged residents to curb usage.

The turn of events in Big Sur was a setback for local residents and a number of famed resorts and restaurants that had been in harm's way earlier but reopened in the last few days.

"Up until yesterday, I would have said it's a day-to-day situation," said Kirk Gafill, the general manager of his family's six-decade-old Nepenthe restaurant. "Now, I'd say it's minute to minute, or hour to hour."

Despite evacuation orders, about 12 of the 20 employees who live at the Nepenthe colony chose to stay along with Gafill.

Gafill, president of the local chamber of commerce, said most businesses on the rugged 70-mile cliff-side highway had closed. The small community of Big Sur was under evacuation orders. Workers applied a coating of fire-resistant gel to vulnerable homes and lodges -- including the Ventana Inn and Spa -- as the unpredictable fire raged.

"It seems to be giving the fire guys conniption fits," said Darby Marshall, a spokesman for the Monterey County Office of Emergency Services. "It's doing things they normally wouldn't expect."

Meanwhile, about 300 firefighters mounted a campaign against the Gap fire in Santa Barbara County, using four helicopters and six air tankers to drop loads of water and chemical retardants. Much of the battle was conducted from the air as firefighters streamed in without a break from fires that have been raging across the state.

"Could we use more resources? Absolutely!" Santa Barbara County Fire Chief John Scherrei said. "But California is stretched thin."

About 300 homes sit downhill and downwind from the flames, which were consuming brush that had gone untouched by fire for 54 years. The blaze was about two miles west of the path of the 1990 Painted Cave fire, which burned 600 structures in 90 minutes.

"I remember how it jumped the freeway and people just had to scramble," said Christina Djernaes, 39, an attorney who was heading home to pack her valuables just in case. "I don't want that to happen this time."

Celia Breyfogle, 75, and her husband Newell, 78, had already boxed up clothing, pictures and documents by Wednesday morning.

"It's been a terrible year," Celia Breyfogle said. "The Midwest is getting water, water, water, and we're getting fire, fire, fire. Wish we could all share."

Motorists on U.S. Highway 101 on Wednesday could see fingers of smoke working their way down the mountain about two miles north of the freeway.

The blaze started about 5:45 p.m. Tuesday near the Winchester Gun Club, said Capt. Eli Iskow, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. Investigators on Wednesday had not yet pinpointed the cause.

About 40 homes in rural Glen Annie and La Patera canyons were evacuated.

An evacuation warning was issued for residents of about 300 homes above Cathedral Oaks Road, between Glen Annie Road and Fairview Avenue.

In Northern California, firefighters continued to battle the numerous lightning-triggered wildfires that have burned more than 440,000 acres.

Statewide, 7,800 homes remain threatened and 31 residences have been destroyed.

Big Sur continues to be among the most threatened spots, with 17 homes lost, 1,200 still threatened and about 1,500 people evacuated.

"For the first time in my life, I saw caravans of people in cars packed with their belongings heading out of the evacuation zone," Nepenthe's Gafill said. "What I've seen on the news from many parts of the world was coming back to us."

Officials say they don't expect to have the fire contained until the end of the month at the earliest.

As of 7 p.m. Wednesday, Highway 1 was closed from Limekiln State Park in the south to Andrew Molera State Park in the north.

"We know a lot of people have remained behind -- that's just the way they live," said Maia Carroll of the Monterey County Office of Emergency Services. "But we're worried for them."

In recent days, weather has helped firefighters to control the blaze, which has charred more than 61,000 acres. Fog is expected through the week, and winds from the north continued to push the blaze back on itself, slowing its march toward more populated areas.

The winds also could push the fire deeper into the Ventana Wilderness and toward the remote outpost of Tassajara Hot Springs, where the Buddhist monks of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center have been preparing for days to fight the flames along with forest service crews.

Although the Basin Complex fire remains less than 5% contained, an even bigger blaze burning to the east in the Los Padres National Forest is expected to be fully controlled by Thursday, fire officials said.

In other parts of Northern California, authorities said they were continuing to get the upper hand on more than 100 of the fires ignited by the lightning barrage June 21.

--

catherine.saillant@ latimes.com

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Times staff writers Eric Bailey and Francisco Vara-Orta contributed to this report.

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