BIG SUR -- In a destructive finale to one of California's driest years on record, firefighters are racing to save what remains of Big Sur's beloved Pfeiffer Ridge along the parched Central Coast.

For most of America, fire season is long over. But the blaze that sparked to life here early Monday not only forced the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade unexpectedly back into action -- it destroyed their fire chief's home, one of 17 houses lost on this high perch above the Pacific.

"It is a wonderful place," said Fire Chief Martha Karstens, who awoke to ashes and sparks by her front door Monday morning. "It's just so hard."

By Tuesday night, the fire had burned 769 acres, fueled by the unusual mix of low humidity and warm temperatures and an accumulation of fuel in a landscape that hasn't burned for more than a century.

"My house is gone. The most beautiful house in Big Sur," said Jerry Schiff, whose Daniel Piechota-designed aerie, with solitude, mitered glass and 270-degree views, perished atop Pfeiffer Ridge. Also lost was his guesthouse and the office where he ran his accounting practice.

The fire broke out shortly after midnight 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 cause of the fire is still under investigation.


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With fire crews descending on the region from around the state, fire officials hope a rise in humidity could help them contain the blaze by Friday.

They have focused their efforts on stopping the blaze from spreading to the Sycamore Canyon community, the exclusive Post Ranch Inn and the historic ranch of Rancho Rico. Highway 1 is intermittently closed to traffic, as small flames creep along edges of asphalt.

Residents of 300 homes were evacuated from the tight-knit community and gathered Tuesday at the ranger station to await news about their homes on the ocean side of Highway 1. Nestled among the fir and redwoods are ancestral hand-built redwood structures, the elegant studio of the late sculptor Emile Norman and the sod-roofed marvel of famed architect Mickey Muenning. Ted Turner's glass home at Pfeiffer Point, below the ridge, is presumed safe.

"It is the most densely populated part of Big Sur," said Magnus Toren, executive director of the Henry Miller Memorial Library. "It is just a tragedy to lose their life's work, the art they have created and collected, the letters and photos -- gone forever."

Big Sur landowners look forward to the traditional Dec. 1 opening of "burn season," when they can clear their property of brush.

But this has been the area's driest calendar year since records were first kept in 1915. Since Jan. 1, only 7.27 inches of rain have fallen at the Big Sur Ranger Station -- 16 percent of normal.

The gurgling spring that supplies Toren's home with fresh water "is lower this year than it has ever been, for 30 years," he said.

Usually this time of year, the last place at risk for wildfires is a stretch of Southern California -- from San Diego to San Luis Obispo -- due to warm fall temperatures and Santa Ana winds.

The late-season ignition of this more northern stretch of Central California is much more unusual, especially the greener and more moist terrain of Big Sur.

On Tuesday, humidity on Big Sur hovered at only 20 percent with temperatures a balmy 70 degrees.

"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.

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 in the nearby 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.

The forested chaparral 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 "The Natural History of Big Sur."

Between 1640 and 1907, fires burned here an average of every 21 years, according to fire ecologists.

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 are part of the Los Padres National Forest, but the area that is burning 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.

"It is really critical," said Manny Madrigal, a forest service public information officer. "We have had a busy fire year this year and it isn't over yet."

Staff writer Paul Rogers contributed to this report. Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.