BIG SUR -- A wildfire in the Pfeiffer Ridge area along California's iconic Big Sur coast grew slightly overnight and is now 5 percent contained, officials said Tuesday morning.
The fire near state Highway 1 has consumed about 550 acres, 50 acres more than the previous estimate. About 400 firefighters are now battling the fire that has burned at least 15 homes and forced 100 people to evacuate since sparking around midnight Sunday.
The area now burning, which has spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, was thick with vegetation and had not burned since 1907, said Big Sur fire brigade Chief Martha Karstens, whose own home was destroyed in the blaze.
At a news conference Monday evening, a tearful Karstens said the tragedy really had not sunk in yet.
"I'm just trying to function as a chief," she said, adding that she had lost everything.
No injuries were reported and the cause has not been determined.
The rare December wildfire came as a stark reminder of the record dry weather across much of California this year.
On Tuesday, a U.S. Forest Service Assessment Team surveyed the burned area to count how many homes were burned. By noon, only one was confirmed, with rumors of up to 50 losses. In all, 300 homes have been evacuated. Almost 500 firefighters have descended on the area from throughout California.
For the rest of America, fire season is over. But a stretch of Coastal California -- from San Diego to San Luis Obispo -- typically remains at high risk during December due to warm fall temperatures and Santa Ana winds.
What is unusual is for this stretch of Central California -- the more northern and moister terrain of Big Sur and the Central Coast -- to ignite so late in the season. Fire season is officially over only after 2 inches of rain has fallen.
Tuesday, humidity on Big Sur remained low -- only 20 percent with temperatures a balmy 70 degrees.
The forested chaparral that are as dry as kindling has grown over decades of aggressive fire suppression that began with the formation of the Monterey National Forest in 1907, according to Paul Henson's book "Natural History of Big Sur."
Between 1640 and 1907, fires burned here an average of every 21 years, according to fire ecologists.
"It is unusual but not that uncommon," said Manny Madrigal, a forest service public information officer. "We have extreme conditions this year, with very little rain and we don't see any forecast of rain in the future. It is really critical. We have had a busy fire year this year and it isn't over yet."
The site of the fire's origin has been identified near the entrance of Pfeiffer State Park, near the Highway 1 bridge, said spokeswoman Lynn Olson of Los Padres National Forest.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Since Jan. 1, only 7.27 inches of rain have fallen at the Big Sur Ranger Station -- 16 percent of normal, and the lowest total since records were first kept in 1915.
"It's kind of shocking. The rain total for this year is less than Big Sur usually gets in December," said Larry Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey. "It's definitely been dry, that's for sure."
Steady rains during a storm earlier this month led local officials to believe that the fire risk had passed for the year. On Dec. 7, showers soaked much of Big Sur, delivering 0.63 inches of rain. Four days later, Los Padres National Forest Supervisor Peggy Hernandez reduced fire restrictions on the Los Padres National Forest, allowing campfires, smoking and target shooting to resume for the winter, citing increased moisture levels in trees, bushes and other plants.
"As we move into the rainy season and reduce fire restrictions, it's important to remember that fire can happen at any time of the year," Hernandez said in a statement last Wednesday. "I strongly encourage all visitors to exercise caution while they are enjoying the forest."
The fire broke out shortly after midnight Sunday on the ocean side of Highway 1, over the ridge and across the road from Big Sur Lodge at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The area affected is bordered to the north by Andrew Molera State Park and to the south by Sycamore Canyon Road, a narrow winding road popular with tourists who use it to access Pfeiffer Beach.
The beach and most of the land in Big Sur east of Highway 1 is part of the Los Padres National Forest, but the area that is burning now consists primarily of privately owned parcels on steep slopes overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Forecasters said the weather may well be shifting, which could help firefighters. Temperatures on Wednesday and Thursday are expected to cool, with increasing relative humidity as moisture from the ocean drifts inland over the fire area, Smith said.
"You might even see some drizzle or a shower Wednesday night or Thursday morning," said Smith.
Rumors swirled among local residents that the fire began from an illegal campfire on Buzzard's Roost Trail, which runs from Big Sur Lodge over Highway 1 and up the ridge where the fire is now burning. The trail is located on state park property and would not have been affected by Los Padres National Forest fire rules. Fires are permitted only in fireplaces and barbecues at the state park, however, so any fire on that trail would have been illegally set.
Asked about the trail, Los Padres National Forest Spokesman Andrew Madsen said he could not confirm the fire started there, but told reporters: "you're getting pretty warm there...That investigation is active. They've got that whole area roped off."
Shortly before 6 p.m. Monday, the Monterey County Office of Emergency Services issued an "evacuation watch," or voluntary evacuation, for the areas of Sycamore Canyon and Pious Ridge. The alert stated that there was a "threat to life and property" but stopped short of making evacuation mandatory.
In a bit of good news, the California Highway Patrol said Highway 1 would remain open unless the fire crossed to the east side of the road.
Forest Service officials warned drivers to be aware that the highway will likely be crowded with emergency vehicles.
Captain Cooper Elementary School closed Monday and held classes at Carmel River School. Andrew Molera State Park also was closed.
Big Sur restaurants opened their doors and kitchens for the hundreds of firefighters battling the blaze.
"This is what the community does," local Anna Davey said.
Crews came from the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire, the volunteer fire brigade and numerous other departments, including 60 inmates from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Gabilan Conservation Camp in Soledad. Though air tankers were grounded for parts of the day, crews carried on an air attack with helicopters.
They fought the fire in weather that topped 80 degrees. Offshore winds kept the blaze on the west side of Highway 1, but fire officials cautioned that there were dozens of homes between the fire and the sea.
Susan Bradley, president of the Big Sur Board of Economic Development, was out of state feeling helpless as she waited for news from her daughter, Ariana Satayathum, who moved back to Big Sur two weeks ago. She said she knew of four families that had lost their homes, including one couple who moved to Carmel Highlands last week and were waiting for escrow to close on their Big Sur home.
Bradley said it seems that some sort of disaster strikes Big Sur every year. She recalled housing nine people during the 2008 Basin Complex Fire. Last year she and her daughter were separated for Christmas by the rock slide that closed Highway 1.
Despite recurring calamities, Monterey County spokeswoman Maia Carroll said officials were dismayed to learn that only 125 Big Sur residents had signed up for instant telephone alerts with the county. She encouraged residents to register their cell phones for fire-related updates at http://alertmontereycounty.org/.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.