Firefighters struggled on Thursday to get the upper hand on a massive wildfire burning along California’s picturesque Big Sur coastline, where anxious residents driven from their homes awaited word on their properties and popular parks and trails closed at the height of tourist season.
The blaze spanning 109 sq km has destroyed at least 34 homes and put at least 2,000 buildings at risk. A 35-year-old father of two girls was killed this week when the bulldozer he was operating rolled over on the fire lines.
The fire has burned for a week and is only 10% contained. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection estimated it will take until the end of August to extinguish it.
“Every day the fire is gaining ground on us,” California fire battalion chief Robert Fish said. “The weather and steep and rugged terrain is taking its toll. So we’ll make progress, but then the fire is making progress faster than we can keep pace with.”
Firefighters worked in rugged terrain near State Highway 1 in an area that draws tourists from around the world for the dramatic vistas of ocean and mountains. The famous roadway remained open, but smoke and the threat of flames forced the closure of state parks near Big Sur, a big economic driver for the region.
Tom and Donna Huntington, both 65, have lived for 29 years in the community of Palo Colorado, which was hard-hit by the fire. They fled their home last Friday and have been staying with friends and a Red Cross shelter at a school.
“It’s a heartbreaker. I could cry right now,” Tom Huntington said. “I’m so lucky I didn’t lose my house. And I know some people that have. All they had was what they wore that day. ... All their stuff — just poof.”
Eric Beninger, a former firefighter who also lives in Palo Colorado, isn’t sure his home is still standing.
“When I did leave yesterday I ended up seeing flames coming up my road,” he said. “Just hope for the best, that’s about all I can do.”
The bulldozer operator who died on the fire lines this week was identified Thursday as Robert Reagan. The Fresno County man’s sister, Hannah Cunnings, told The Associated Press that her brother was the kind of person who would offer to put snow chains on a neighbour’s car or fix an engine that needed repair.
“Even since he was a boy, he just really wanted to help people,” she said, crying.
Besides two daughters, Cunnings said her brother and his wife cared for a young niece.
Another man was killed last week in a wildfire still burning on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Crews have stopped the spread of that nearly 155 sq km blaze, which destroyed 18 homes in mountains and canyons around Santa Clarita.
Authorities have not determined a cause for either fire.
Four people who escaped the Big Sur fire early in the week acknowledged growing marijuana in the area for the last three months, Monterey County sheriff’s Sgt. Kathy Palazzolo said.
It’s illegal to cultivate marijuana in California except for medicinal purposes, but pot grows are common throughout coastal Monterey County, south of San Francisco.
“We have them all over, all throughout the county, in the national forest, on private property, in riverbeds, we find them all over,” Palazzolo said.
Separately, seven people were rescued Tuesday after calling 911, Palazzolo said. They said they were backcountry hikers, but police are skeptical.
There was no evidence to suggest the fire was sparked by marijuana cultivation, Cal Fire spokesperson Robert Fish said.