The fires that bedevil California took another ominous turn Thursday as a blaze near Goleta triggered more evacuations and authorities shut another 10 miles of Highway 1 along the flaming Big Sur coast.
Mushrooming in size, the Goleta fire was declared a local emergency by Santa Barbara County officials. Because of its proximity to populated areas, it was also designated the top firefighting priority in a state currently plagued with a multitude of fires, some of them burning without intervention in remote areas.
In Goleta, residents of more than 1,600 homes had been ordered to evacuate by Thursday night. In some cases, the fire was a mile away.
At Big Sur, more than 64,000 acres have burned, 20 structures have been destroyed and about 1,300 are threatened.
“The weather forecast this weekend is for warming and drying conditions,” said Greg DeNitto, a spokesman for the multi-agency team fighting the Big Sur blaze. “That’s not a good prognosis.”
In a period of less than two weeks, at least 1,700 lightning-triggered fires in California have charred more than 513,000 acres. About 100 fires continue to burn. Statewide, more than 10,700 homes are threatened and 34 residences have been destroyed. A new fire Thursday burned at least 250 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest near Yucaipa.
At Nepenthe, the landmark restaurant perched on a cliff above the Big Sur coast, employees who live in cabins on the grounds had suffered through a rough night as the crackling flames kept coming closer.
But about 3 a.m. Thursday, a marine layer moved in, slowing the fire’s advance.
Later in the day, Shane Stephens, 35, a supervisor in the restaurant, wrestled with whether to stay another night or to heed his girlfriend’s plea to evacuate.
“I have an older car and only half a tank of gas,” he said. “I don’t want to get stranded on the road.”
Stephens started toward his car. Then, he paused and came back. He needed to explain why leaving was so hard for him.
Nepenthe “is not like Chili’s in town,” he said. “This is a place where people come back years later to relive memories. It’s known around the world. It’s family-run and family-owned. It’s not corporate.”
He paused, then choked up.
“We are like family,” he said. “If you could be friends with everyone in your neighborhood, that’s what it’s like to work here. So if this goes up, we have nothing.”
In Goleta, the Gap fire looming over the city had tripled its size Wednesday night, growing to more than 2,400 acres as it burned for a third day. Its cause is under investigation. Wind gusts of up to 50 mph were forecast through the early morning hours, keeping firefighters on edge.
Aimed at speeding state aid, Santa Barbara County’s emergency declaration was prompted by both the blaze and an accompanying power outage Wednesday night that left 81,000 customers in the dark, some for several hours. More outages may occur as flames consume thick vegetation growing beneath transmission lines, officials said.
“People should take this moment to be ready,” said county Supervisor Salud Carabajal. “Get the flashlights out and the portable radios.”
The Gap fire has destroyed at least one structure and spread over a mountainside about a mile from the nearest Goleta neighborhoods. Because the fire has been designated California’s top priority, firefighters there will get first call on personnel and equipment leaving other fires, said Santa Barbara County Deputy Fire Chief Tom Franklin. He said it’s not about size: “The top priority is based on what’s at risk.”
Most of the homes under mandatory evacuation are in the northern portion of Goleta, as well as several hillside areas.
“The fire is expanding and creating a more potent threat to many, many structures,” said Capt. Eli Iskow of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
By Thursday evening, the sky over the Santa Ynez Mountains near Goleta was rimmed with orange and filled with billows of black smoke.
Firefighters were bracing for winds as high as 40 mph, fearing that powerful gusts could drive the fire downhill, through groves of citrus and avocado trees and into Goleta’s neighborhoods.
The forecast is much the same for the next few days, though “monsoonal moisture” is a possibility next week.
“That’s good news and bad news,” Franklin said. “The winds along with it can be fairly squirrelly.”
What the next few days hold for Big Sur is anyone’s guess. The fire has been notoriously unpredictable, pushed and pulled in surprising directions by shifting winds blowing through the coast’s jumble of peaks and ridgelines.
As of 4 p.m. Thursday, authorities had shut an additional 10 miles of Highway 1 to aid the firefighting effort. They closed the road, the Big Sur coast’s only highway, from Limekiln State Park in the south to Palo Colorado Road in the north -- a distance of about 35 miles.
More than 1,500 residents have been under mandatory evacuation orders, though officials say they have no way of knowing how many have actually left. Some of the area’s famous resorts were at risk; at the Ventana Inn and Spa, workers slathered buildings with fire-resistant gel.
At Nepenthe, about 20 workers who live on site chose to stay, signing waivers indicating that sheriff’s deputies had told them of the high risk.
“I’m staying as long as I can,” said Russell Brough, a 15-year veteran of the restaurant. “We’re focused on saving the restaurant and the gift shop, and as many of the homes as we can.”
By 6 p.m. Wednesday, general manager Kirk Gafill and his workers had formulated a rough plan: They would watch in shifts through the night for fire coming over the closest ridge. Important possessions were packed inside cars and trucks, ready to roll if need be. If the flames came close, each building would be sprayed with fire-retardant gel.
“I told them, ‘Make sure you want to stay. I can’t offer you any personal security. But if you want to be here, let’s work this together,’ ” said Gafill, whose family has owned the restaurant for nearly 60 years.
As the night wore on and flames 50 feet tall shot through the mountains just a quarter-mile away, some staff members left. But about 10 stayed the night. Three fire engines sat at the base of the restaurant, ready if the flames advanced. Two of them were called to other hot spots about 2 a.m.
On Thursday, helicopters dipped over the ocean, picked up seawater in 3,000-gallon buckets and dumped it on the smoldering mountain.
But the fire was still growing in three directions -- north, south and east. Only the persistence of the aerial attack kept it from moving west in a final descent toward Nepenthe, according to Gafill.
“We are so grateful for any help we have gotten,” he said, noting that resources have been stretched wafer-thin because of other wildfires. “This whole community is based on people helping each other out. But this is unlike anything we have ever experienced.”
Saillant reported from Big Sur, Chawkins from Goleta. Times staff writers Eric Bailey and Margot Roosevelt contributed to this report.