BIG SUR, Calif. – Piles of charred rubble smoldered near California's scenic coastal highway Thursday as a ferocious wildfire descended on the storied tourist town of Big Sur, destroying vacation homes and sending forest creatures running toward the sea for cover.
The stubborn blaze, which has burned more than 100 square miles in the Los Padres National Forest, was just one of hundreds raging around the state. And officials on Thursday reported California's first firefighter death this year — a volunteer who collapsed on the fire line in Mendocino County.
So much forest has burned near Big Sur that animals have been forced out of their habitat and onto the roads. Buzzards flew overhead to snatch up dead rodents and squirrels, and residents reported seeing bear, deer and other big animals migrating toward the Pacific Ocean.
Meanwhile, crews near the Pacific Coast Highway fought back flames from homes and historic landmarks, including the upscale Ventana Inn, which was surrounded by crackling, burning brush.
Several homes perched on a ridge about a quarter-mile from the cliffside inn fell victim to the fire the night before.
At least 20 homes have been destroyed in the area since the blaze broke out June 21, up from 17 homes counted Wednesday. The fire was only 5 percent contained by Thursday evening.
Many Big Sur residents followed mandatory evacuation orders issued this week, but some chose to defy the orders, staying behind to try to save their homes and businesses.
Kirk Gafill, general manager of Nepenthe, said he and five employees were up all night trying to protect the cliffside restaurant his grandparents built in 1949. Wearing dust masks, the crew scrambled to stamp out embers, some the size of dinner plates, that were dropping from the sky, he said.
"We know fire officials don't have the manpower to secure our properties," Gafill said. "There are a lot of people in this community not following evacuation orders. Based on what we saw during Katrina and other disasters, we know we can only rely on ourselves and our neighbors."
Greg Ambrosio, who lives next to Nepenthe, signed a waiver Wednesday night to stay in his house. But his plans to stay were disrupted when he was awoken by a neighbor in the middle of the night who warned of the approaching inferno.
"Then there's a knock on the door, and we go outside and the fire had just expanded. It was Armageddon," he said. "Just yellow smoke and ash mixed with fire. It was just raining down."
Ambrosio said he and his wife grabbed their cat and drove to a relative's house for the night.
A total of 367 wildfires are burning in the state, most ignited by lightning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, and the U.S. Forest Service. That figure is down from a peak of roughly 1,500 fires just a few days ago.
In all, the wildfires have scorched more than 790 square miles and destroyed at least 65 structures across northern and central California since June 20, according to Cal Fire.
With firefighting resources stretched thin early in the fire season, counties have been recruiting volunteer firefighters to help with smaller blazes.
On Thursday, volunteer firefighter Robert Roland, 63, died in a Mendocino County hospital after collapsing a day earlier while battling lightning-sparked blazes in the area, north of the San Francisco Bay region. It was the first reported death of a firefighter this season, and the governor ordered flags at the Capitol to fly at half-staff.
Crews made progress at a separate wildfire burning nearly 130 square miles southeast of Big Sur. The blaze, also in Los Padres National Forest, was about 95 percent contained Thursday.
Meanwhile, a fast-growing fire in the southern extension of the Los Padres forest north of Santa Barbara forced authorities to order more evacuations as strong winds pushed flames toward homes in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains and knocked out electricity to thousands of homes and businesses.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County to free up resources to fight that blaze, which has burned nearly 5 square miles and threatened about 1,000 buildings.
Evacuation orders were issued for residents living along several roads west of the San Marcos Pass and in the Hidden Valley, Trout Club and Painted Cave communities, although it was unclear how many people the orders affected.
In the Sequoia National Forest east of Bakersfield, crews struggled to contain a blaze burning nearly 22 square miles. Powerful gusts and choking smoke traveling up the steep canyons hampered their progress, and residents of neighboring towns were ordered to evacuate.
In Arizona, a wildfire that destroyed three homes in the historic mining community of Crown King earlier in the week was still just 10 percent contained Thursday morning. Evacuations continued in the town, 50 miles north of Phoenix, and nearby Horsethief Basin.