Parks in peril: California wildfire forces shutdown of famed Big Sur coastline region

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2016, 9:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2016, 9:00am

California’s signature parks along the Big Sur coastline that draw thousands of daily visitors from around the world were closed Tuesday as one of the state’s two major wildfires threatened the scenic region at the height of the summer tourism season.

To the south, firefighters made progress containing a huge blaze in mountains outside Los Angeles, allowing authorities to let most of 20,000 people evacuated over the weekend to return home. In Wyoming, a large backcountry wildfire in the Shoshone National Forest put about 290 homes and guest ranches at risk.

The Los Angeles-area fire has destroyed 18 homes since it started and authorities over the weekend discovered a burned body in a car identified Tuesday as a man who refused to be evacuated.

A woman living in the house Robert Bresnick was visiting left with firefighters but he went back inside the house. The body of Bresnick, 67, was found about 20 minutes later Saturday in the car after flames tore through the area, said Los Angeles County Coroner’s Assistant Ed Winter.

The Big Sur closures were put into place for parks that draw 7,500 visitors daily from around the world for their dramatic vistas of ocean and mountains along Highway 1 near storied Monterey Bay.

The park shutdowns came as a fire that started Friday just north of Big Sur grew Tuesday to 78 sq km but was just 10 per cent contained. Twenty homes have burned in the zone, residents of 300 more were ordered to evacuate and more than 2,000 firefighters were trying to douse the blaze.

“At any point in time this fire can change directions, can spread very quickly and if that happens there could be embers that fly a mile ahead of the main fire,” said Richard Cordova, a state fire captain.

Park roads, trails and camping sites in five parks and a nature reserve were closed as a safety precaution because of thick smoke causing unhealthy air quality and to keep the roads free of traffic for firefighters, said state parks spokesman Dennis Weber.

The Wyoming fire in a remote region burned nearly 28 sq km and forced the evacuations of 900 people but no homes had burned by Tuesday afternoon, authorities said.

In neighbouring Bridger-Teton National Forest, a fire grew to 67 sq km and was partially contained. Two smaller fires were burning in the Bighorn National Forest.

In Southern California, the fire in rugged wilderness between the northern edge of Los Angeles and the suburban city of Santa Clarita grew to 152sq km.

But authorities said Tuesday they had managed to contain 25 per cent of the area, meaning the flames there had been isolated and were not expected to spread. They warned, however, that the fire was still extremely dangerous and would take time to put out.

“We’re not really out of the woods,” said US Forest Service spokesman Justin Correll. “We’re not ready to relax. There’s still a lot of firefighting to do.”

The 3,000 firefighters faced another day of temperatures mid-30s Celsius as they fought the fire, aided by fleets aircraft dropping retardant and water and hundreds of fire engines.

Some neighbourhoods in Santa Clarita, population about 200,000, remained off limits Tuesday because of the fire. But most evacuations ordered for about 10,000 homes with an estimated 20,000 residents were lifted.

Lane Leavitt, who trains stunt actors and specialises in setting people on fire for movies and television, was relieved when he returned home Monday evening to find his home and business fully intact.

“It’s a miracle everything was there,” he said from his home across the street from a ranch used to make movies where the sets were incinerated.

Leavitt and his son on Saturday used extinguishers to battle a circle of flames in the backyard before firefighters arrived.

Without that effort, he said, the fire probably would have consumed six tall pine trees that could have exploded and sent flaming embers onto his house, with wind carrying them to hundreds of others nearby.

Friends and clients from around the world called and texted Leavitt, worried he lost everything after he abandoned the house with fire burning on two sides of it.

He texted back: “We’re still standing.”