California Wildfires Strain State's Resources

Big Sur is surrounded by flames and more than 1,000 wildfires are burning across California. The state's firefighting resources are being pushed to the limit. Many fires may burn for over a month. The 61,000-acre blaze has burned at least 16 homes.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Some of the most scenic parts of California are smothered in smoke and flames today. The community of Big Sur is under evacuation orders and 30 miles of the Pacific Coast Highway are closed due to wildfires. Further south, a new fire near Santa Barbara is threatening homes.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports on how Californians are dealing with the fires.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: The Fourth of July weekend is usually prime time for campers in California. Residents and tourists alike flock to scenic beaches and forests to revel in nature and beat the heat. This year, the Northern California resort area of Big Sur won't be receiving visitors.

Ms. TINA ROSE (Spokesperson, CalFire): There are thousands of people now that are not going to be camping or visiting Big Sur. It's the Fourth of July weekend were looking at here. But, you know, it is absolutely too dangerous for anyone to be in that area.

NORRIS: Tina Rose is a spokesperson for CalFires, the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention. Rose says the fires that are ravaging much of the state were the result of a perfect storm - tinder-dry undergrowth from an extended drought and a freak meteorological occurrence.

Ms. ROSE: There was a huge lightning storm that came over Northern California and started hundreds of fires all in one day.

BATES: As a result, the area has been battling fires for a week. To ensure public safety, 25 miles of the scenic Pacific Coast Highway have been closed. Residents of Big Sur, a haven for naturalists and a popular tourist destination for decades, received mandatory evacuation. Most complied, although some of the town's 1,700 residents dragged their feet.

Carolyn Rice of the Red Cross supervise the establishment of an emergency shelter in Carmel about a half-hour north of Big Sur. Rice says she got people who belatedly chose to obey the authorities' orders.

Ms. CAROLYN RICE (American Red Cross): Last night, we had a group from Nepenthe that came in at 11:30. When they saw flames, they decided it was time to leave.

BATES: Nepenthe is a landmark. The restaurant's broad wooden deck has a gorgeous view of the Pacific. But Nepenthe and popular nearby inns, such as Ventana, have all been evacuated. Nearby, the small library established by writer Henry Miller is nestled in redwoods. Firefighters are trying to keep both cultural treasures safe.

The state has stretched itself to address these myriad fires. So far, over 440,000 acres have been consumed and almost 2,000 people have been devoted to battling the blazes. And there may be a need for more. New fires suspected to be of the manmade variety sprang up overnight farther south in the town of Goleta right near Santa Barbara. Fires hit key electrical transformers, which caused a power outage for several miles. That was a powerful reminder to Santa Barbara resident, Bob McDermott, to be prepared for the next time.

Mr. BOB McDERMOTT (Santa Barbara Resident): We didn't have a battery-powered radio around the house, so we sat by candlelight and had some dinner and listened to the sirens go off around (unintelligible). But the power came back on in the middle of the night and we were able to find out what was going on in the morning.

BATES: So far, McDermott says, business is going on as usual today. The restaurants and shops on State Street are full and people are enjoying the day. But they were also keeping an eye on the smoky hills.

Mr. McDERMOTT: We had the biggest wildfire in California history last year. So compared to that, this feels relatively small but still, closer on our side of the mountain this time.

BATES: And red flag warnings will continue through the holiday weekend.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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