36 Pebble Beach Homes Burned : Winds Whip Fire Out of Control; 100 Families Forced to Flee Area

Times Staff Writers

Winds gusting to 20 m.p.h. whipped a brush fire through the northern portion of Pebble Beach on Sunday, destroying at least 36 expensive dwellings and driving more than 100 families from their homes.

No serious injuries were reported, but a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry said the fire was still burning furiously late Sunday night, and there were no estimates as to when the flames might be contained.

California 68 was closed for more than 10 miles from Pacific Grove to California 1, the southern entrance to the scenic "17-Mile Drive," a part of Pebble Beach where homes ranging in value from $200,000 to well over $1 million are spread through carefully tended groves of trees, some of which are more than a century old.

Disaster in the Wind

"We thought we had it under control," said Department of Forestry spokeswoman Shaunda Wilson. "Things were looking good and the fire crews had diverted it from 17 Mile Drive--but about 7 p.m. the wind rose . . . and things just got out of hand in a hurry."

By late Sunday evening, more than 200 firefighters from the Department of Forestry and from 16 surrounding communities were battling the blaze with the help of 11 pumper trucks, 20 tankers, two bulldozers and five helicopters.

But the fire continued to spread, consuming more than 70 acres in the most scenic part of the Del Monte Forest area of the Monterey Peninsula, as a pall of smoke resembling a dense fog bank543584114blotting out the sunset and the moon.

"The last thing they did, just before sunset, was to make a helicopter reconnaissance over the burn area," Wilson said. "They counted 36 houses gone--burned out and gutted--from the air. But no one really knows yet how high the count could go."

Power failures made communication between the firefighting headquarters and the fire line difficult, and authorities said emergency communications equipment was being brought in from San Francisco, which also sent firefighting crews to the scene.

Patrol units from the Monterey County Sheriff's Department and the Department of Forestry moved through the north end of Pebble Beach at about 8 p.m., alerting residents to the danger and warning them to get out. The warning was also broadcast on television.

"They told me to go, and we went," said James Blish, who has lived in the area for nearly 20 years. "I built the house we live in and I love it and I love the things in it. But I love being alive more. So when the word came, we left. But not without a backward glance or two."

Department of Forestry spokeswoman Jackie Scoggin said the fire began at about 3:30 p.m. Sunday in the Morris Botanical Reserve area of Del Monte Forest.

Cause Is Unclear

"The cause is still under investigation," she said, "but I understand there were some people in there earlier and that one or more of them was seen smoking, so that could be a clue."

By 6 p.m., the blaze had burned only about 30 acres; firefighters had been able to divert it from one line of expensive homes, and a spokesman for the firefighters speculated that it might be fully contained before sunset.

But then the wind shifted.

"It came in gusts--like a blast furnace," said Monterey city firefighter Bob Englehardt . "In what seemed like a single blink, the acreage had doubled and it was into the homes along Huckleberry Hill."

The fire burned near the Peninsula Community Hospital Sunday night.

"There is a lot of smoke in the area, but we are in no immediate danger," a Monterey City Fire Department spokesman said. "We have turned off the ventilation system and we are trying to get the smoke out. We are getting information about beds in other hospitals in case we do have to evacuate. But there seems to be no real cause for alarm."

Firefighter Injured

One minor injury was reported: A Department of Forestry firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation and a burned hand, but authorities said he later returned to duty.

Scoggin said the wind finally died about 9:30 p.m., allowing firefighters to catch up with the blaze and try to deal with it on a house-to-house basis.

"But the trouble is," Englehardt said, "that all these houses in here have those pretty wooden shingles that are so nice and dry and silvery and burn so quickly. A spark gets to one of them and the house is gone and all you can do is try to keep it from getting into the next house."

The Red Cross established temporary shelters at Monterey Peninsula College, but a spokesman said most evacuees were spending the night with friends or in nearby hotels and motels.

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