Soberanes Fire Claims First Victim, Destroys 36 Homes

The operator of a bulldozer was killed when it rolled over during the fight against a wildfire near Big Sur that has scorched nearly 24,000 acres and destroyed 36 homes and two outbuildings, California fire officials said Wednesday.

Another operator escaped injury when a second bulldozer rolled over and sustained minor damage, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The name and age of the operator who was killed was not immediately available.

The death occurred as firefighters worked around the clock against the Soberanes blaze near a scenic stretch of the California coast, where smoke and the threat of flames forced the closure of state parks near Big Sur, a popular tourist area.

"We need to reflect, make sure we're safe," Cal Fire Capt. Lucas Spelman said as firefighters mourned the loss of one of their own. "Our hearts go out to his family."

Cal Fire held a community meeting Wednesday night, the second such meeting in the past week. There, resident Don Curry said his cabin was one of the first homes consumed by the blaze.

"That was my home," he said. "So I lost everything I own."

Curry shot video of the fire when it was approaching and narrated.

"These are like 300-foot flames," he says in the video. "I'm kind of shaking."

During the meeting, people were consoling ewach other, and there was a moment of silence for the firefighter who lost his life.

Cal Fire also got plenty of questions from evacuees wondering when they'll be allowed to go home.

The Soberanes fire started Friday north of Big Sur and was just 10 percent contained Wednesday. By Tuesday, residents of 300 homes had been ordered to evacuate and on Wednesday afternoon, Cal Fire officials expanded their order to include a larger area.

The Cal Fire response to the blaze, which has ravaged 23,568 acres and is threatening at least 2,000 structures, includes 3,079 firefighters, 306 fire engines, 14 helicopters, six air tankers, 60 dozers and 19 water tenders, officials said.

High temperatures Wednesday were accompanied with lower humidity, making the fire difficult to contain. 

Also, dense fog grounded 10 helicopters — as has been the case for the past three days — that were on scene to make badly-needed water drops. Cal Fire officials said they were hoping for "good, clean air," so ground crews battling the flames amid the dry and rugged terrain could get a break.

In some cases, Spelman said, crews have been forced to hike up three miles to reach the fire's edge.

"We're starting to get into fatigue stage, so we're starting to watch the firefighters," he said.

Soberanes Fire Spreads, Impacts Air Quality

On Wednesday, some area residents admitted that they, too, were feeling weary.

Tom Huntington, whose house is south of Monterey, said, "We're not rich people. We couldn't start over. We would have to live in a tent or something."

He said his art studio went up in flames in 2007. This time, Huntington was able to grab a few pieces of art before flames ripped through his neighborhood in Palo Colorado Canyon. 

"How can you sleep?" he asked. "It will be OK. No, it might not be OK. You know?"

Huntington was told that his house is still standing, but some of his neighbors weren't so lucky.

"I'm feeling weepy, like I could cry, but I don't want to," he admitted.

Other homeowners said they were just hoping for the best. 

"Everything is tinder dry," said Carmel Valley resident Roberta Troxell, who has "documents and pictures and all of those things that I can just grab and go."

Troxell said also that it's important to "always have enough dog food."

The Soberanes fire could crest a ridge and make a run toward campgrounds, lodges and redwoods closer to the shore, officials said, noting that their main objective on Wednesday was to keep the blaze from heading west — toward Carmel Valley.

Pacific Coast Highway remained open Wednesday, but its signature views were marred by a dark haze.

"We wanted to see more of the ocean," said Phoenix-area tourist Jim Newby, who drove along the highway with his family Tuesday. "We didn't see a whole lot of it unfortunately, and it's a beautiful, beautiful stretch."

Cal Fire officials said Wednesday that a male bulldoze operator was killed by the Soberanes Fire in Monterey County. His identity has not yet been released. Sharon Katsuda reports.

The Big Sur closures were put into place for parks that draw 7,500 visitors a day from around the world for their dramatic vistas of ocean and mountains.

Eight hikers were rescued near the Soberanes fire lines Tuesday after spending days wandering smoky trails with little water or food. No serious injuries were reported.

Acting Gov. Tom Torlakson, substituting for Gov. Jerry Brown who is at the Democratic National Convention with other top state officials, declared a state of emergency for both fires on Tuesday night. The move frees up funding and relaxes regulations to help with the firefight and recovery.

Cots and warm meals are available for evacuees at the Red Cross shelter, located in Carmel Middle School at 4380 Carmel Valley Road in Carmel-by-the-Sea. 

"A lot of people just need to talk," Red Cross volunteer Jenni Craig said. "So that's what we're here for, too."

As families are forced to evacuate, some pets have been left behind in the area affected by the Soberanes fire. Specially trained workers with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for Monterey County have gone behind the fire lines to rescue more than 30 animals. The animals are now staying at a shelter while their owners wait for word about the condition of their homes.

The SPCA is seeking cash donations, small bags of pet food and cat litter at the evacuation center and its shelter at 1002 Monterey Salinas Highway in Salinas. 

Anyone affected by the fire who needs help with pets or large animals can call the SPCA at 831-373-2631.

For the latest on the Soberanes fire, visit the Cal Fire website.

Evacuation orders are in place for the following areas:

  • Robinson Canyon Road from San Clemente Trail to White Rock Gun Club
  • Area south of San Clemente Trail, from Robinson Canyon road to the Rancho San Clemente Gate House, to include the Arroyo Sequoia Road
  • Palo Colorado
  • A portion of Santa Lucia Preserve on San Carlos Road between Canter Run and Garza Trail
  • Old Coast Road
  • Corona Road, east of Highway 1
  • Riley Ranch Road, east of Highway 1
  • Bixby Creek Road from Highway 1 south to Mesa
  • Garrapatos Road
  • Weston Ridge Road

Evacuation warnings are in place in the following areas:

  • Area to the north of San Clemente Trail / Dormody Road, to include those roads to Black Mountain Trail, Touche Pass, the community of San Clemente, and all of Long Ridge Trail
  • Carmel Highlands
  • White Rock
  • Old Coast Road, south from Bixby Creek Road to Little Sur River
  • Rancho San Carlos
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