BIG SUR, Calif. - Piles of charred rubble smoldered along California's scenic coastal highway yesterday as a ferocious wildfire descended on the storied tourist town of Big Sur, destroying vacation homes and sending forest creatures running toward the sea for cover.
The stubborn blaze, which has burned more than 100 square miles in the Los Padres National Forest, was just one of hundreds raging around the state. Officials reported California's first firefighter death this year - a volunteer who collapsed on the fire line in Mendocino County.
So much forest has burned near Big Sur that animals have been forced out of their habitat and onto the roads. Buzzards flew overhead to snatch up dead rodents and squirrels, and residents reported seeing bear, deer, and other big animals migrating toward the Pacific Ocean.
Meanwhile, crews along the Pacific Coast Highway fought back flames from homes and historic landmarks, including the upscale Ventana Inn, which was surrounded by crackling, burning brush.
At least 17 homes have been destroyed in the area since the blaze broke out June 21, and fire officials could not immediately confirm yesterday which properties were newly burned. The fire remained only 3 percent contained.
Many Big Sur residents followed mandatory evacuation orders issued this week, but some chose to defy the orders, staying behind to try to save their homes and businesses.
Kirk Gafill, general manager of Nepenthe, said he and five employees were up all night trying to protect the cliffside restaurant his grandparents built in 1949. Wearing dust masks, the crew scrambled to stamp out embers, he said.
"We know fire officials don't have the manpower to secure our properties," Gafill said. "There are a lot of people in this community not following evacuation orders."
Greg Ambrosio, who lives next to Nepenthe, signed a waiver Wednesday night to stay in his house. But his plans to stay were disrupted when he was awakened by a neighbor who warned of the approaching inferno.
"It was Armageddon," he said.
A total of 367 wildfires are burning in the state, most ignited by lightning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, and the US Forest Service. That figure is 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 across northern and central California since June 20, according to Cal Fire.
Yesterday, volunteer firefighter Robert Roland, 63, died in a Mendocino County hospital after collapsing while battling lightning-sparked blazes north of the San Francisco Bay region.