July 4, 2008 in Nation/World

Goleta fire California’s top priority

Los Angeles Times The Spokesman-Review
Associated Press photo

A firefighter uses a special gun to start a backfire in Big Sur, Calif., on Thursday. Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

BIG SUR, Calif. – The fires that are bedeviling California took another ominous turn Thursday as a blaze near Goleta triggered additional 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 120 homes had been ordered to evacuate by Thursday night. In some cases, the fire was a mile from homes.

At Big Sur, more than 64,000 acres have burned, 17 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 Northern California have charred more than 506,000 acres. About 100 fires continue to burn. A new fire Thursday burned at least 250 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest near Yucaipa.

At Nepenthe, the iconic 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 the high-risk area.

“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.

“This is not like Chili’s in town,” he said of the restaurant. “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 2,000 acres as it burned for a third day. Its cause is under investigation.

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