BIG SUR, Calif. – Authorities ordered the remaining residents of this scenic coastal community to leave Wednesday because an out-of-control wildfire, one of hundreds in California, had jumped a fire line and was threatening more homes.
Flames raged in the hills above and ash fell from orange skies as evacuees in packed cars streamed north along Highway 1, the only major road out of Big Sur. Sheriff's deputies told residents they needed to leave the area by late afternoon.
"The fire is just a big raging animal right now," said Darby Marshall, spokesman for the Monterey County Office of Emergency Services.
The blaze near Big Sur is one of more than 1,100 wildfires, mostly ignited by lightning, that have scorched more than 770 square miles and destroyed 64 homes and buildings across northern and central California since June 20, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
New mandatory evacuation notices were issued Wednesday for a 31-mile stretch along Highway 1. Authorities have closed a total of 25 miles of the scenic roadway, blocking access to popular resorts, restaurants, shops and art galleries that attract tourists from around the world.
The blaze had destroyed 16 homes and charred about 81 square miles of forest since it was started by lightning on June 21 in the Los Padres National Forest. It was only about 3 percent contained and officials told evacuees at a public meeting Wednesday evening that they didn't expect full containment until the end of the month.
The new evacuation notice means that all of the roughly 850 residents who live along the Big Sur coast from Andrew Molera State Park to Limekiln State Park have been ordered to leave, Marshall said.
Janna Fournier, a Big Sur resident for eight years, was heading back to her house to retrieve artwork and rescue her pet tarantula.
"I feel sad for the wilderness and the people who lost their homes," Fournier said. "We chose to live in a wilderness among all this beauty, so I know there's that chance you always take."
Helicopters hauling large containers of water droned loudly overhead as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, R. David Paulison, visited Big Sur on Wednesday.
"This is a very dangerous fire right now because of the wind and because of how dry things are and how early in the year it is," Paulison said in an interview. "If people evacuate like they're told to, we shouldn't lose any lives. ... My only concern is that people don't take it seriously enough."
Federal fire managers predict an increase in severe wildfire activity in Northern California through October because of the unusually hot, dry weather and scant rain.
In Southern California, a fire in the southern extension of the Los Padres National Forest north of Santa Barbara caused mandatory evacuations of about 45 people in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Officials said the fire had burned 1,200 acres of rough terrain by Wednesday evening.
About 150,000 Southern California Edison customers in Goleta and Santa Barbara were without electricity shortly after 7 p.m. when thick smoke forced the shutdown of power transmission lines, utility spokeswoman Lois Pitter Bruce said. Power has been restored to about half of the affected customers.
Santa Barbara city fire Battalion Chief Christopher Blair said the power lines were "putting a light show on the hill" as they shot sparks and lights blinked on and off.
In the Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield, crews struggled to contain a 13,500-acre blaze. Powerful gusts and choking smoke traveling up the steep canyons hampered their progress, and residents of neighboring towns were ordered to evacuate.
Rough terrain in the Santa Ynez area hampered firefighters, said Santa Barbara County spokesman William Boyer. "It's mostly an aerial battle," he said.
Elsewhere, a wildfire threatened 15 homes and the Okanogan tribal bingo casino near Okanogan, Wash., and some residents had been evacuated, said Ron Bowen of the state fire marshal's office. The blaze had covered 1,500 acres — just over 2 square miles — and the state sent people and equipment to help Bureau of Indian Affairs firefighters, officials said.
Firefighters near Crown King, Ariz., were hacking away at brush and trees and burning back land near the town on Wednesday to try to quell a blaze that had burned nearly 12 square miles of land.