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Winds die down as Big Sur wildfire burns near California’s Highway 1 and forces evacuations

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/22/2022 Timothy Bella, María Paúl

Firefighters on Saturday were taking advantage of shifting winds while working against a blaze that prompted evacuations in California’s Big Sur and shut down part of Highway 1 along the Pacific coastline, the latest wildfire to threaten a region known for its famous landscapes.

The Colorado Fire started Friday in Palo Colorado Canyon, a rural area in Monterey County, and had burned about 1,050 acres, Cal Fire spokesperson Cecile Juliette said, revising the acreage down from an earlier reported 1,500 acres. It was 20 percent contained as of Saturday evening.

A stretch of Highway 1 was closed in both directions because of the fire north of the Bixby Bridge, the California Department of Transportation said. National Weather Service meteorologists noted that photos posted on social media indicated “some pretty surreal fire behavior,” given recent wet conditions.

“Anecdotally it seems as though the long term drought is acting like a chronic illness where even recent rains and cold winter [weather] isn’t helping to keep fires from developing,” forecasters wrote Saturday.

Fire crews are seen at Bixby Bridge as the Colorado Fire burns near Big Sur, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 22. (Peter DaSilva/Reuters) © Peter Dasilva/Reuters Fire crews are seen at Bixby Bridge as the Colorado Fire burns near Big Sur, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 22. (Peter DaSilva/Reuters)

While the strong winds helped spread the fire across the “unforgiving and steep terrain,” Juliette said, softer gusts helped slow the fire and aided crews.

“It’s looking a lot better right now with the forecast we have” she said. “We’re hoping to have some good news by the end of the day.”

About 500 people had been evacuated from about 1,100 structures, Juliette said Saturday evening. The fire damaged an “occupied yurt,” she said. About 430,000 people live in Monterey County, though the fire was concentrated in a region with relatively few homes.

No injuries or deaths had been reported. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Cal Fire tweeted that the fire could be seen about 70 miles away in Santa Cruz County. Several agencies were responding to the blaze.

Some witnesses shared photos of the flames behind the Bixby Bridge, the structure that spans the deep and wild canyon along Highway 1 and has been featured in television shows and commercials. Michael Meddles, assistant chief with Cal Fire, said earlier Saturday that while the fire has moved south toward Bixby, the bridge is not being threatened by the flames.

The wildfire is the latest to burn across California in the past year. The Dixie Fire was the second-largest in California’s history and the biggest to burn in the United States last summer, when climate change turbocharged severe storms, floods and fires. More than 1,300 structures were leveled, causing government agencies to spend about $540 million to battle the blaze. The Dixie Fire burned nearly 1 million acres, an area larger than New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas combined.

How the Dixie Fire became the largest blaze of devastating summer

The number of California wildfires usually peaks about summertime, and the ones in the cooler months are rare, but climate change is leading officials to take a different approach, Juliette said.

“It’s a great cause of concern,” she said. “This just shows you that there’s no such thing as a fire season. We’re referring to it now as a fire year.”

California’s shifting weather patterns have presented new threats to Highway 1, a California spectacle that features stunning beauty along its 650-mile route.

One of the most serious blazes in recent years was the 2016 Soberanes Fire along Highway 1 just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea, about 75 miles outside San Jose. The fire burned nearly 60 homes and killed a bulldozer operator, and it was among the most expensive fires to fight in state history at the time.

The Colorado Fire broke out on the same day that Vice President Harris visited her home state to announce that California would be receiving $600 million in recovery funds for the U.S. Forest Service in the state. “As a daughter of California, I know the devastation that wildfires bring,” she wrote on Twitter.

Jim Shivers, a spokesman with the California Department of Transportation, said Saturday that there was no estimated time for reopening Highway 1. George Nunez, an assistant fire chief with Cal Fire’s San Benito-Monterey unit, told the Mercury News that the blaze “made a run through the canyons” after it aligned with fast-moving winds.

“It moved surprisingly fast for a fire around this time of year,” Nunez said. “We had a little bit of moisture and it was cold last night, but because of the winds it burned along the slope, caught another wind and then blew in another direction.”

The state has experienced exceptional drought, which brought moisture levels in California’s forests to historic lows, as well as searing heat. Recent rains have helped reduce some of the drought in the state.

By Saturday evening, about 730 PG&E customers were without power, said Karly Hernandez, a spokesperson for the state’s public utility company.

Marisa Iati, Dylan Moriarty, Adela Suliman and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.


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