Tourists Desert California Coast as Wildfires Spread

Every summer thousands of tourists travel to this rugged stretch of California coast whose soaring mountain cliffs and sweeping ocean views have inspired writers from Henry Miller to Jack Kerouac.

But many of the rustic inns, restaurants and art galleries that dot the coastal highway here are nearly deserted this week as hundreds of firefighters battle a massive wildfire that is threatening the community of Big Sur and its tourist-dependent businesses.

By Friday, the blaze had burned nearly 42 square miles in the Los Padres National Forest and destroyed 16 homes in the Big Sur area since it was sparked Saturday by a lightning storm that ignited more than 1,000 wildfires across Northern California.

The Big Sur fire was only 3 percent contained as firefighters worked to protect more than 500 homes and other buildings threatened by the blaze. They let the wildfire rage virtually unchecked in the remote mountain wilderness as it expanded into mostly uninhabited areas.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked President Bush on Friday for a federal emergency declaration to free up more aid, saying the fires this season had burned 265,000 acres, or more than 400 square miles.

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"This is not going away anytime soon," said Mark Savage, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Low humidity did little to slow the fire overnight, and noticeably hotter weather was forecast for Friday afternoon.

Overnight, firefighters reinforced their fire lines near homes and businesses in the area, moving in heavy engines and more personnel, said Curtis Vincent, a spokesman for the Los Padres National Forest.

The blaze burned nearly 42 square miles in the national forest and was just 3 percent contained, but at least it was growing parallel to the coast — not toward inhabited areas, he said Friday.

The hundreds of smaller fires in remote Northern California burned primarily in Humboldt, Shasta and Trinity counties. No people appeared immediately in jeopardy, though there are homes scattered through the forest areas.

The fire count had gone up from 800 to nearly 1,100 because smoky air had hampered efforts to track all the blazes, said Jason Kirchner, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

"That's part of our problem — all of Northern California has been socked in for days, and aircraft haven't been able to see the ground," Kirchner said. Firefighters on the ground have provided most of the intelligence on new fires, he added.

Some 11,000 firefighters from 41 states are battling the blazes. Authorities put the firefighters on notice that they might be abruptly deployed to new fires expected to spring up with new lightning storms already under way.

"Our No. 1 priority is we want to stop any new, small fires," Kirchner said.

Authorities closed a long stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway threatened by the blaze, shutting off access to several lodges, restaurants and art galleries that depend on tourism. Motorists who had planned to drive south along the coast were forced to turn around.

The Esalen Institute, a retreat known for its natural hot springs, did not appear immediately threatened, but it canceled workshops through the July 4 weekend because of falling ash and poor air quality.

The blaze struck at the peak of Big Sur's tourist season, dealing an economic blow to businesses that generate most of their annual income during the summer.

The fire forced the closure of Nepenthe Restaurant, along with its cafe and crafts shop, which typically draw about 1,000 visitors a day during the summer, according to general manager Kirk Gafill, whose grandparents started the business in 1947.

Gafill estimates the business was losing more than $30,000 a day in revenue because of the blaze, which reached Nepenthe's property and destroyed several homes on a nearby ridge. The restaurant was set to reopen Friday night after officials moved the road closure area farther south.

"The impact is economically pretty devastating, but hopefully short in duration," said Gafill, who also heads the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce. "We were having the best year on record until June 21 when the fire started. We're hoping we can get our momentum back as soon as possible."

The state's many blazes are darkening skies over the San Francisco Bay area and Central Valley. The threat of fire has already led communities across Northern California to cancel plans for Fourth of July fireworks displays.

In central New Mexico, firefighters worked through most of the night to make sure a wildfire that has charred some 3,500 acres in the Manzano Mountains didn't make any pushes to the south.

The lightning-caused fire was just 10 percent contained as of Friday morning, and some 400 people remained out of their homes near Tajique, a town southeast of Albuquerque.

A dozen Colorado fires sparked by lightning strikes the day before were burning Friday, including one that forced about 100 people from their homes. A shed and a trailer were the only structures burned so far in the blaze about 130 miles southwest of Denver, Park County spokeswoman Linda Balough said.