BIG SUR — A unusual winter wildfire that started near the coast in Big Sur jumped to 1,050 acres by Saturday morning, largely due to gusty winds that blew the flames in unpredictable directions and prompted a large number of evacuations, Cal Fire officials said.
The Colorado Fire started at 5:19 p.m. in the Palo Colorado Canyon and Rocky Creek Road area in Monterey County, according to Cal Fire. It was originally estimated to have reached 1,500 acres Saturday, but officials later revised that.
Responders had reached 25% containment by Sunday morning, with residents told to avoid Big Sur and with Highway 1 closed in both directions. Cal Fire San Benito-Monterey and Mid Coast Fire are in unified command.
No injuries were reported nor homes burned. One building has been damaged, according to Big Sur Fire Chief Matt Harris and a Cal Fire update Sunday morning.
“People say, ‘well it rained,’ but it’s not enough rain,” said Mark Courson from Cal OES, who met with Harris Saturday on the edge of Highway 1. “Throw wind on it and all bets are off.”
Conditions to battle the fire improved as the winds died down and the humidity went up, according to the National Weather Service. Fire suppressant was also dropped from the air.
Evacuations had been ordered for all areas west of 3800 Palo Colorado Road to Highway 1 and south to Bixby Creek.
The evacuation orders shocked those forced to flee Friday. Rachel Meuller, who lives at the mouth of the canyon close to the highway, was one of them, leaving her home with her husband at about 8 p.m.
“My neighbor called to say someone up the canyon could see the flames. We didn’t believe it,” said Meuller, waiting with other evacuees at a roadblock near Garrapata on Saturday to try to return to their homes. Quickly, though, “I could see the flames coming over the ridge right behind us. It was terrifying.”
About 75 homes were given evacuation notices according to a release from Monterey County, but several residents chose to stay in their homes.
The highway closure spanned from near the Andrew Molera State Park entrance area in Big Sur to Rio Road in Carmel, according to Caltrans District 5. By late Saturday morning, the closure was moved to eight miles south of Rio Road. Cal Trans said it is patrolling the highway for rockfall and plans to inspect drainage facilities.
Kirk Gafill, president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce and the general manager of Nepenthe restaurant, said “there is no doubt” the closure of Highway 1 will impact travel and business in the Big Sur area. Gafill explained due to the loss of access, especially from the north where 70% of Big Sur’s clientele originate, the area will see “at best 10-20% of normal business conditions over this weekend.”
Though January is considered an off-season for Big Sur travel, Gafill said lodging establishments and restaurants had still expected “a good level of business.”
Beyond the impact on hospitality, Gafill added that the closure has impacted vendors and employees trying to get into the area. With no timeline on when the Highway 1 closure will be lifted, Gafill said businesses are “scrambling to figure out the Rubix cube of how to adjust staffing.”
As for conditions, Gafill reported “good weather” and “little to no smoke impact” where he was located at Nepenthe restaurant, which stands about 15.6 miles south of Bixby Bridge along the Big Sur coast.
An American Red Cross Shelter was set up Friday night at Carmel Middle School, 4380 Carmel Valley Road. Cots, snacks, water and bathrooms, as well as an on-site nurse and on-call mental health support were available, said Red Cross shelter volunteer Melody Heilmann. SPCA Monterey County was also stationed at the shelter, offering emergency pet supplies and housing pets displaced by the fire — which included six cats and a dog according to the County.
Volunteers said two families had utilized the shelter’s services as of Saturday afternoon. Though there were no evacuees at the shelter as of Saturday morning, the Red Cross assured services will be accessible as long as they are needed.
When the fire broke out, wind gusts drove it to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Videos show the fire burning down to Rocky Creek Bridge as well as the historic Bixby Bridge. Built in 1932, the Bixby Bridge’s iconic arch supports and dramatic views of rugged coastline are so popular that luxury car commercials are made here. The fire caused no damage to the structure.
Although the fire started near the coast, it became aligned with fast-moving winds blowing in both directions and “made a run through the canyons,” Cal Fire Assistant Chief George Nunez said in an interview.
“It moved surprisingly fast for a fire around this time of year,” said Nunez, who works in Cal Fire’s San Benito-Monterey unit. “We had a little bit of moisture and it was cold last night, but because of the winds, it burned along the slope, catch another wind and then blew in another direction.”
More than 120 firefighters were on scene Friday night, but the canyons were so steep and dark that responding crews were not able to begin actively containing the flames until the morning hours, Nunez said. The cause of the fire was also still under investigation.
A map of the evacuation area can be found at https://bit.ly/3Aob9S0.
Source: Orange County Register