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Steep terrain slows fight against California coastal fire

A firefighting crew walks past burning trees in Big Sur, California, December 16, 2013. REUTERS/Michael Fiala
A firefighting crew walks past burning trees in Big Sur, California, December 16, 2013. REUTERS/Michael Fiala

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Crews battling a wildfire along central California's scenic Big Sur coastline were on guard against a possible shift in winds on Tuesday, after the blaze destroyed at least 15 dwellings and forced 100 people to flee their homes, fire and county officials said.

Firefighters gained little ground overnight on the slow-moving Pfeiffer fire, which had blackened 550 acres by late Tuesday morning, up 50 acres from the day before, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Lynn Olson said.

Crews have so far managed to extend containment lines around just 5 percent of the fire's perimeter, up from zero percent containment on Monday, she said.

The fire was burning mainly on Pfeiffer Ridge in Big Sur, a mountainous coastal region south of the Monterey Peninsula that reaches into the Los Padres National Forest.

Olson said low winds and cool temperatures likely slowed the fire's growth overnight, but there was a chance the weather would shift on Tuesday afternoon.

At least 400 firefighters were working to suppress the blaze on Tuesday, but the area's treacherous landscape — with high cliffs and quick-burning brush — hampered their efforts to dig containment lines, Olson said.

"Steep terrain is a constant in this fire — brushy, steep terrain," Olson said. She said at least three helicopters were deployed on Tuesday to drop ocean water on the flames.

The blaze has burning mostly on the ocean side of Highway 1, which runs roughly parallel to the Pacific coast in central California, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Andrew Madsen said. The picturesque highway has remained open despite the fire.

The cause of fire, which started at around midnight on Sunday near the Big Sur Lodge, about 25 miles south of Carmel, was under investigation, Olson said.

Big Sur, famed for its beaches, coastal redwoods and panoramic views of the ocean, is home to a mix of multimillion-dollar houses and eclectic, fringe-living communities.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney, Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Steve Gorman)

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