Big Sur, miles of rugged coast, cliffs and wilderness, is a popular tourist destination about 150 miles south of San Francisco with high-end resorts and beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean. In the summer of 2008, a lightning-sparked wildfire forced the evacuation of Big Sur and blackened 250 square miles before it was contained. That blaze burned more than a dozen homes.
The current fire began Sunday near midnight, fueled by dry vegetation and fanned by winds. It was burning a little more than a mile from the Ventana Inn and Spa, a favorite spot among celebrities where former Facebook president and Napster co-founder Sean Parker got married in June.
Among homes destroyed was that of Big Sur Fire Chief Martha Karstens. She tearfully told reporters Monday night that the loss of her home of 23 years had not yet sunk in.
"I just haven't absorbed it all yet," she said. "I'm just trying to function as a chief."
Other residents anxiously tried to get information about their homes.
Jim Walters, who was up the coast in Carmel when the blaze started, told the Monterey Herald he went to the entrance to his street, local restaurants and the fire command station, but had no luck learning anything about his home.
"I don't know where else to go," he said.
The Red Cross set up an overnight shelter for displaced people, said Los Padres National Forest spokesman Andrew Madsen.
A wildfire so late in the year is unusual in Northern California, where the fire season is generally at its peak over the summer, said Larry Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey.
Smith said the Big Sur area has averaged nearly 45 inches of rain yearly between 1981 and 2010. But like the rest of California, the area has received about 7 inches of rain this year, about 16 percent of its normal amount.
"That's very, very dry," Smith said.
Still, officials said they were hopeful they could contain the blaze this week as temperatures were expected to be in the 50s on Wednesday and Thursday.
"We're cautiously optimistic that we're going to pin this thing down within the next couple of days," Madsen said.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.