The fire is one of six large fires burning in California, an alarming start to what firefighters expect is going to be a busy fire season similar to last year.
(TNS) - A wildfire that destroyed 20 homes and two other buildings south of Carmel in Monterey County grew to almost 15,000 acres Monday, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people as fast-moving flames continued to threaten homes throughout the famously rugged and picturesque coastal region.
The Soberanes Fire is one of six large fires burning in California, an alarming start to what firefighters expect is going to be a busy fire season similar to last year, when a series of huge, damaging fires also began raging at about this time.
As of Monday afternoon, the fire was only 5 percent contained as flames swept over steep forested mountains between Carmel and Big Sur, fire officials said.
The blaze, first reported at 8:48 a.m. on July 22 a mile east of Soberanes Creek, flared up amid strong winds and hot temperatures over the weekend, growing to 14,897 acres.
More than 1,400 firefighters from across the state battled the flames, which crackled through a mix of heavy timber, brush, grass and oak woodlands Monday, scorching the hard-to-reach wildland near Garrapata State Park.
The fire was threatening 1,650 homes and structures, said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire. Residents in the communities around Rocky Creek, Weston Ridge Road, Palo Colorado Road, Garrapatos Road, and Highway 1 at Old Coast Road to Bixby Creek Road were ordered to evacuate.
Brent Baysinger, 57, who lives on Palo Colorado Road, said he tried to reach his house Friday after returning from a meeting in Carmel only to be blocked by a wall of smoke and ash.
“If the fire went through, everything I have would be gone. It’s a bummer,” Baysinger said Monday, while at an evacuation shelter opened at Carmel Middle School at 4380 Carmel Valley Road.
“There are so many dead trees around my property,” he said. “It’s like a matchstick ready to blow up.”
Another evacuee, Barbara Cox, who also lives on Palo Colorado Road, said she grabbed her cats and her neighbor’s cat and bolted from her neighborhood Friday.
“I’m just tired. You don’t sleep when this is going on,” said Cox, adding that the home of one of her friends was destroyed in the fire. “I just pray no more homes are lost. These are people’s lives.”
Large power lines in the communities of White Rock and Rancho San Carlos were also in jeopardy of coming down, Upton said. Other nearby residents were warned to be ready at a moment’s notice to flee in case the fire gets close to their homes.
“There are a lot of little canyons that go up like fingers off the coast up into the mountains and every canyon is populated,” Upton said. “They are small, very scenic communities of scattered homes in the trees and along the creeks with one-way roads, many of them unpaved.”
Smoke over Pebble Beach
Huge billowing clouds of brown smoke wafted over the resort town of Carmel on Monday, dropping ash on buildings and cars. Plumes of smoke hung over the famous golf course at Pebble Beach and drifted all the way to the South Bay. There were reports of smoke from the fire drifting as far as western Nevada.
Six air tankers and seven helicopters dropped water and fire retardant from the air as firefighters from multiple Bay Area fire departments joined the battle on the ground.
“The biggest challenge out here is the weather. There is low humidity and wind,” said Cal Fire Capt. John Clingingsmith. “On top of that, you’ve got the challenging topographic terrain that’s already drought affected. It’s like warming up an oven — the fire takes off.”
Clingingsmith said the steep hills have made it extremely difficult for firefighters to even reach the fire.
“They’ve had to do long hose lays, sometimes two-hour hikes in or they have to be helicoptered in,” he said. “Our air resources are slowing the fire down until we can get boots on the ground.”
The number of destroyed homes could go up, he said, as damage assessment teams get back into the remote canyons.
On Palo Colorado Road in the heart of the threatened area, fire chief Cheryl Goetz of the Mid Coast (Volunteer) Fire Brigade was standing by the roadside in dirty clothes, taking a short break from long days on the fire line.
“When you live somewhere like this, you have to be prepared,” she said. “We always know this was going to happen. Just a matter of time.”
She gazed about, through the smoke and ash, toward the log homes and cabins of her neighbors.
“This is my community,” she said. “This hurts. It’s really sad. It devastates you. Where do you go, what do you do?”
Although a half dozen fires are burning across the state, Upton said the Soberanes Fire and the 33,000-acre Sand Fire in Los Angeles County are the two worst. Some 10,000 homes have been evacuated in the Los Angeles area, where flames could be seen Monday off Sand Canyon Road near Santa Clarita. Most of those evacuations were called off Monday night, even though that fire was only 10 percent contained.
Chief Ken Pimlott, the Cal Fire director, said it is the third year in a row that big fires have erupted at this time. The Wragg Fire in Napa and Solano counties ignited on July 22 last year. It was the first of a series of major fires, including the Rocky and Valley fires, which raged through tinder dry Lake County.
“We’re dry statewide, very similar to what we were last year,” said Pimlott, who is also the California state forester. “Despite the rain and precipitation, we have reached back into critical fire conditions in almost all of the state.”
Thousands of fires
As of July 23, 3,137 fires have burned 57,972 acres in California this year. That’s a faster pace than last year, when 3,094 fires had scorched only 29,953 acres at this time, according to Cal Fire statistics, which do not include the 616 fires handled by U.S. Forest Service and other agencies.
The five-year average for this time is 2,732 fires and 39,570 acres. Upton said 300 new fires erupted over the past week alone, but most of them were small.
Tall, dry fuel is a major concern for experts, who are afraid of the enormous fire plumes, known as pyrocumulus clouds, that plagued firefighters last year. Pimlott said the drought conditions along the Central Coast to Southern California are just as bad as last year.
“The rains we had this past winter were actually detrimental in that they produced a bumper crop of annual grasses,” Pimlott said. “We are seeing on average 3- to 4-foot-high grasses. That’s the fuel bed that is going to be very receptive to a spark, serving as the wick for bigger fires.”
The tens of thousands of dead and dying conifer trees in the central and southern Sierra are also a major concern. An estimated 66 million trees have died in California since 2010, according to U.S. Forest Service surveys.
“The fire siege window is opening,” Pimlott said. “It’s not unanticipated. We have been planning and preparing for this kind of activity. ... If we could predict when and where, that would be the perfect scenario, but we can’t. We just plan and prepare and then respond aggressively.”
Evan Sernoffsky and Peter Fimrite are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @EvanSernoffsky @pfimrite
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