Officials: Big Sur blaze now 74 percent contained

December 18, 2013 7:24:59 PM PST
Officials say a late fall wildfire in Northern California is now nearly three quarters fully contained.

The has destroyed more than a dozen homes and forced about 100 people to flee the scenic Big Sur region overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Calm winds helped crews as they closed in on the Pfeiffer Fire in Los Padres National Forest near state Highway 1.

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Lynn Olson said, as of Wednesday evening, the fire Pfeiffer has now consumed 843 acres and is about 74 percent contained.

Full containment could be as early as Thursday evening, Olson said.

The blaze has destroyed 22 buildings, about 13 of those structures were homes.

Two firefighters have received minor injuries while battling the blaze, including one who hit his knee on a rock in the rough terrain and another who suffered from heat exhaustion, Los Padres National Forest spokesman Andrew Madsen said.

U.S. Forest Service Spokeswoman Kathleen Phelps says nearly 900 firefighters have assisted in battling the fire as the forest service has spent nearly $1 million to fight it.

So, far, Olson said, the weather has been working in their favor.

"Usually it's wetter by this time of year, but we're in a dry cycle. We've had very little rain. We have some other conditions such as sudden oak death in this part of the forest," Olson said. "The warm winds, the warm weather, the dry conditions just line the pins all up."

Big Sur - miles of rugged coast, cliffs and wilderness - is a popular tourist destination about 150 miles south of San Francisco with high-end resorts and beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean.

The fire was burning a little more than a mile from Ventana Inn and Spa, a favorite spot among celebrities where former Facebook president and Napster co-founder Sean Parker got married in June.

In the summer of 2008, a lightning-sparked wildfire forced the evacuation of Big Sur and blackened 250 square miles before it was contained. That blaze burned more than a dozen homes.

California's fire season traditionally peaks by mid-fall, but the drought of the last several years has given the state essentially year-round danger.

The Big Sur fire began Sunday, fueled by dry vegetation and fanned by winds.

Among the homes destroyed was that of Big Sur Fire Chief Martha Karstens. She tearfully told reporters Monday night that the loss of her home of 23 years had not yet sunk in.

"I'm just trying to function as a chief," she said.

Other residents anxiously tried to get information about their homes.

Jim Walters, who was up the coast in Carmel when the blaze started, told the Monterey Herald he had gone to entrance to his street, local restaurants and the fire command station but had no luck learning anything about his home.

"I don't know where else to go," he said.

The Red Cross set up an overnight shelter for displaced people, Madsen said.

The Monterey County Sheriff's Department issued an evacuation watch Tuesday afternoon for the area west of Highway 1 between Fernwood Resort and River Inn, but no more mandatory evacuations were ordered. Highway 1 remains open, Olson said.

A wildfire so late in the year is unusual in Northern California, where the fire season is generally at its peak over the summer, said Larry Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey.

Smith said the Big Sur area has averaged nearly 45 inches of rain yearly between 1981 and 2010. But the area has received about 7 inches of rain this year, about 16 percent of its normal amount.

"That's very, very dry," Smith said.

Still, Madsen said Wednesday they were hopeful they could contain the blaze this week as temperatures were expected to be in the 50s the next couple of days.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Associated Press writers Terry Collins and Sudhin Thanawala in San Francisco also contributed to this report.


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