Wildfires chase July 4 visitors from California | SummitDaily.com

Wildfires chase July 4 visitors from California

Kirk Gafill, general manager of Nepenthe, points to the smoke-filled sky as he talks about a wildfire approaching his family-owned business in Big Sur, Calif., Thursday, June 26, 2008. Hundreds of firefighters worked Thursday to protect the scenic community of Big Sur from a lightning-sparked wildfire that inched closer to historic structures after burning 16 homes and threatening another 500 houses. The blaze in the Los Padres National Forest was only 3 percent contained and had burned nearly 37 square miles near the coast about a mile south of Big Sur. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

BIG SUR, Calif. ” Independence Day is normally a booming time for tourism here, with visitors settling into cliffside vacation homes or trekking out to campgrounds nestled among the redwoods. But this year, the only out-of-towners in Big Sur are firefighters working around the clock to save the storied community from flames.

A ferocious wildfire burning through the Los Padres National Forest continued creeping closer to town Friday, after jumping a fire line and claiming several more homes this week. Locals who feared for their homes and businesses also had to worry about lost revenue during peak season.

“I’m sure the season is just toast,” said Kurt Mayer, who ignored mandatory evacuation orders to defend his Big Sur Deli from the approaching fire. “Usually the busiest time is July and August, so I’m sure it’s just going to be zero.”

The stubborn blaze, which has burned more than 100 square miles, was just one of hundreds raging around the state. On Thursday, officials reported California’s first firefighter death this year ” a volunteer who collapsed on the fire line in Mendocino County.

At least 20 homes have been destroyed near Big Sur since the blaze broke out June 21. The fire was only 5 percent contained by late Thursday.

Crews near the Pacific Coast Highway fought back flames from homes and historic landmarks, including the upscale Ventana Inn which was surrounded by crackling, burning brush Thursday afternoon. Several homes perched on a ridge about a quarter-mile from the inn fell victim to the fire the night before.

Kirk Gafill, general manager of the nearby Nepenthe restaurant, said he and five employees were working feverishly to protect the cliffside business his grandparents built in 1949. Wearing dust masks, the crew scrambled to stamp out embers, some the size of dinner plates, that were dropping from the sky, he said.

“We know fire officials don’t have the manpower to secure our properties,” Gafill said. “Based on what we saw during Katrina and other disasters, we know we can only rely on ourselves and our neighbors.”

A total of 367 wildfires were burning Thursday across the state, most ignited by lightning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, and the U.S. Forest Service. That figure was down from a peak of roughly 1,500 fires just a few days ago.

In all, the wildfires have scorched more than 790 square miles and destroyed at least 65 structures since June 20, the department said.

With firefighting resources stretched thin early in the fire season, counties have been recruiting volunteer firefighters to help with smaller blazes.

On Thursday, volunteer firefighter Robert Roland, 63, died at a hospital after collapsing a day earlier while battling a 550-acre blaze in Mendocino County, north of the San Francisco Bay region. It was the first reported death of a firefighter this season, and the governor ordered flags at the Capitol to fly at half-staff.

Crews made progress at a separate wildfire burning nearly 130 square miles southeast of Big Sur. The blaze, also in Los Padres National Forest, was about 95 percent contained Thursday.

Meanwhile, a third wildfire in the southern extension of the Los Padres forest north of Santa Barbara forced residents to evacuate the town of Goleta as strong winds pushed flames toward homes in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains. In all, authorities told residents of about 1,700 homes in several small communities to leave.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County to free up resources to fight that blaze, which has burned nearly 5 square miles since breaking out Tuesday. The fire was 16 percent contained by early Friday, U.S. Forest Service spokesman John Ahlman said.

In the Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield, crews struggled to contain a blaze burning nearly 22 square miles, which was about 15 percent contained Thursday. Nearby residents remained under voluntary evacuation orders.

Elsewhere, a nearly 15-square-mile wildfire in Arizona that destroyed three homes in the historic mining community of Crown King earlier in the week was still just 10 percent contained Thursday night. Evacuations continued in the town, 50 miles north of Phoenix, and nearby Horsethief Basin.

The fire, which broke out late Saturday, is believed to have been started by lost hikers.

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