Firefighters are fighting to contain a wildfire that broke out near Big Sur last week as flames continue to engulf California’s dry landscape and threaten historic sites, cabins and ranches.
The fire is one of dozens of wildfires burning in hot, dry conditions throughout the western US, including Arizona and New Mexico.
In Monterey County, the so-called Willow Fire has burned more than 2,400 acres since it blew up on Thursday night. About 450 firefighters face the difficult task of trying to contain the great wildfire in the rugged coastal mountains south of Big Sur. The fire remained at 0% containment until Monday morning and forced the evacuation of a Buddhist monastery and a nearby camp.
The area is also home to endangered species and contains cultural sites that could be at risk if the fire continues to grow, and Los Padres National Forest Resources Advisers have brought in biologists, botanists and members of the Chumash tribe to help protect of sensitive areas.
“We have to take our time to access these areas because we can’t put the equipment there,” said Amanda Munsey, public information officer for California’s Interagency Incident Management Team 11. “The weather is also an important factor,” he adds. “And it has been very hot for several days and very dry.”
Hundreds of people have been ordered to evacuate the mountainous area, including most of those at the Tassajara Mountain Zen Center, a historic Zen Buddhist monastery. Some monks who are part of a trained firefighting team stayed behind to assist in the shooting.
“The ZMC fire team will remain to run ‘Dharma Rain’ [Tassajara’s sprinkler system] and prepare the monastery in case the fire reaches the valley, ”the center posted on its website on Sunday.
“Tassajara has been working on special fire preparedness projects during the close of the pandemic and the fire team has been in place and trained for several months. Our water supply is good and we are well prepared for this situation. “
The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
The latest wildfire comes as the American West is hit by a historic drought and officials predict another unprecedented fire season. A heat wave has scorched the region, intensifying drought conditions and ignition risks much earlier than normal for the year. Already this year, 33 large fires have been burned more than 372,000 acres in 10 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Department.
“Right now in June, the dryness and fuel conditions are what we would expect in August,” says Munsey. “It is alarming but it is out of our control. So we have prepared the best we can. “
There is hope that cooler weather, expected with higher humidity in the Bay Area in the coming days, will help the flames subside, but there is concern that winds along the ridges will continue to drive the fire and complicating containment efforts. But with so many fires already burning in the west, resources have been depleted.
In Arizona, a fire called the Backbone that burned more than 32,750 acres after being ignited last Wednesday by lightning also has 0% containment. Temperatures have exceeded 100F and thousands of residents have been evacuated northeast of Phoenix, in the communities of Strawberry and Pine.
“There are big fires around Arizona and Utah, all over the western United States,” Munsey says. “That becomes problematic when it comes to bringing resources to whatever fire you are in because they have already been reduced too much.”
Meanwhile, the mountainous city of Flagstaff was engulfed in smoke by another blaze, dubbed the Rafael Fire, on Monday. If the fire continues to move northeast, hundreds of people in the university town, which is about two hours north of Phoenix, could be affected, authorities say.
It’s already been a tough fire season for Arizona, which has had multiple fires this summer. On Monday, two national forests in northern Arizona made rare announcements that they would be completely closed to visitors starting this week, due to concerns that they will not have enough resources to respond to future wildfires.
And in New Mexico, lightning-sparked fires have scorched the southern part of the state, where much of Gila’s wilderness remains closed, and firefighters are keeping a close eye on the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.
The Associated Press contributed reports