More than 500 residents of California’s Big Sur area were ordered to evacuate Friday night as a bushfire spread through the mountainous coastal region known for its winding bends and dramatic cliffs.
According to the National Weather Service, the fire was “stubbornly active overnight” as intense, gusty winds of up to 80 km/h blew the flames erratically along steep canyons in the area. On Saturday morning, the blaze – known as the Colorado Fire – has grown to 1,000 acres (up from an earlier estimate of 1,500 acres) after starting just after 5 p.m. Friday in the Palo Colorado area Canyon. Only one structure had burned on Saturday. The cause of the fire, which on Saturday evening was 20% contained, is under investigation.
The blaze swept through an area with little to no fire history, according to the National Weather Service. “Images on social media suggest some pretty surreal fire behavior given the wet October and December that was seen across the region,” the National Weather Service said on Twitter.
“Anecdotally, it appears that the long-term drought is acting like a chronic disease where even recent rains” and cold winter weather “doesn’t help keep the fires from growing,” said the National Weather Service.
Although fires in California typically peak in the summer, major fires have occurred in December and January in recent years.
“Everyone says California has a year-round fire season,” said George Nuñez, captain of Cal Fire, the state fire agency. “And that’s just part of it.”
On Friday evening, the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office issued an evacuation order to more than 500 people in a coastal stretch south of the small seaside town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. A section of Route 1 was closed as the fire raged along the famous coastal highway, blotting out the road’s dramatic bridges in smoke.
Videos posted to social media showed a red glow visible over 60 miles away in Santa Cruz. Shifting winds are expected to push the smoke north toward the Monterey Peninsula and the town of Salinas on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.
Nuñez said 120 firefighters were on the scene Friday night and Saturday. But intense wind conditions and steep terrain made it difficult for crews to contain the fire. The fog that usually rolls over the coast in the evening was abnormally light, he said.
“Usually you get this recovery overnight and things slow down, but last night we didn’t get that,” Nuñez said.
The dwindling workforce during what was to be the off-season made controlling the fire more difficult.
During peak fire season, Mr. Nuñez’s unit has 17 fully equipped fire trucks, he said. But when the official fire season ended on January 3, that number was reduced to two. More than 100 seasonal firefighters have been laid off for a three-month period.
“Funding is only available for a certain period of time, and we cannot run the seasonal program any longer,” Nuñez said.
But with the prolonged drought, this funding schedule no longer matches the reality of fire season on the ground.
“Some of the units that were closing for fire season ended up with snow for an extended period of time, and that’s not happening anymore,” Nuñez said.
With limited resources, Nuñez’s unit sought additional personnel and equipment from other fire departments under a resource-sharing plan called “mutual aid.”
With milder winds on Saturday, Mr Nuñez said he hoped crews would be able to bring the blaze under control. But the region is not expecting rain until late February, so conditions will remain conducive to fires, he said.