A pair of out-of-control wildfires roared along California's central coast Friday, chewing through opposite ends of a parched forest and threatening a total of more than 4,500 homes.
While flames from the stubborn fire in the northern flank of the Los Padres National Forest inched closer to Big Sur's historic vacation retreats, state emergency officials said hot winds had caused a newer blaze – 200 miles south in Santa Barbara County – to double in size overnight.
Residents of more than 1,700 homes in and around the city of Goleta were ordered to evacuate, joining an equal number of people who were told to leave Big Sur days earlier.
Driven by wind gusts as high as 40 mph, the Santa Barbara County fire was so fierce early Friday that firefighters at one point took shelter in about 70 homes they were trying to defend, said Capt. Eli Iskow of the county fire department.
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“Hundreds of firefighters were in place around hundreds of structures,” Iskow said. “I think we saved every one of those structures in that area.”
Wind was less of a problem in Big Sur, which remained eerily empty under a thick blanket of fog and smoke at the start of the long holiday weekend. No more properties were lost since Thursday, but the density of the parched terrain allowed the 13-day-old wildfire to keep advancing on the storied tourist town, where flames made their way toward the scenic Pacific Coast Highway and sent forest creatures running toward the Pacific Ocean for cover.
“It came down into the canyon last night. I couldn't sleep. It's still in there lurking about,” said Kurt Mayer, who ignored the mandatory evacuation orders to douse his Big Sur Deli with fire-retardant gel.
Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said weather forecasts calling for winds to kick up again in the afternoon had officials worried the outlook for both blazes was not going to improve anytime soon.
By Friday morning, the Big Sur fire was only 5 percent contained and had consumed more than 100 square miles and 20 homes; the Goleta fire was 10 percent contained and had destroyed about a half-dozen outbuildings and more than 8 square miles.
The Los Padres blazes were two of 335 active wildfires burning in California, down from a peak of roughly 1,500 fires a few days ago, but they were commanding the greatest share of equipment and personnel because of their locations near populated areas, Berlant said.
“Any time we have structures threatened and lives at risk, it's a top priority,” he said.
Goleta resident Susan Ramirez said she and her husband and two children evacuated their duplex about two miles from the fire late Thursday as conditions deteriorated. They were staying with her parents, also in Goleta, and watching the smoke.
“It was completely black, and there was too much ash,” Ramirez said. “Our eyes were burning, and we were trying to get out of there as fast as we could.”
Since a series of dry lightning strikes ignited more than 1,500 wildfires across central and Northern California on June 21, more than 520,000 acres, or 814 square miles, of range and forest land has gone up in flames.
Along with the Goleta and Big Sur fires, another fire generating concern is in the Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield, where a wind-driven blaze had burned 25 square miles, destroyed one home and threatened 1,000 more in nearby communities.
In Arizona, officials said a blaze southeast of Prescott had burned four homes since it broke out June 28. The blaze has forced the evacuation of the mountain town of Crown King and was just 10 percent contained Friday.