Stubborn fire threatens California's scenic coast

Sun Jun 29, 2008 6:47pm EDT

LOS ANGELES, June 29 (Reuters) - California firefighters struggled to gain the upper hand on Sunday against a nine-day-old wildfire that is threatening the scenic Big Sur area along the state's rugged central coast.

The Big Sur fire has burned about 32,500 acres (13,150 hectares) and destroyed 16 homes since it was sparked by lightning on June 21, the U.S. Forest Service said.

Firefighters have contained only 3 percent of the flames and the Forest Service could not estimate when the fire would be brought under control.

A 10-mile (16 km) stretch of the coastal Highway 1 was closed for a fourth day, and the community of Big Sur remained threatened. Evacuation advisories were issued throughout the area, but the local chamber of commerce said most businesses were still open.

Big Sur is heavily wooded, with steep slopes running down to the Pacific Ocean. The terrain creates one of California's most dramatic landscapes -- and slow going for more than 1,000 firefighters on the scene.

Its 90-mile (145 km) stretch of coastline lies between the quaint town of Carmel in the north and San Simeon, home of Hearst Castle, to the south. The area is a popular destination for campers, surfers and nature lovers. Novelist Henry Miller lived there for 18 years.

A library honoring Miller's legacy said it was closed until further notice. The Esalen Institute, a spiritual retreat frequented by Jack Kerouac and Joan Baez, said it was closed at least until Sunday. But Hearst Castle said it was still open.

A total of 31 fires were burning in California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center of Boise, Idaho, covering 333,838 acres (135,000 hectares), an area 23 times the size of Manhattan.

The biggest fire, covering 60,000 acres (24,300 hectares) at Los Padres National Forest, to the east of Big Sur, was about 89 percent contained, and was expected to be completely under control by Thursday, according to the Forest Service.

California fire officials are bracing for a busy fire season, which the weekend's lightning strikes started sooner than expected, because the state's rainfall has been below average for two years, leaving grass, brush and timber bone dry in many areas. (Reporting by Dean Goodman, editing by Anthony Boadle)