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550-acre fire in California's Big Sur even burns fire chief's home

By Michael Martinez. Dan Simon and Paul Vercammen, CNN
updated 9:43 PM EST, Tue December 17, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The wildfire burns several houses, including the fire chief's
  • NEW: "The irony doesn't escape me," fire chief says
  • NEW: Firefighters have 36 hours before 30-mph winds arrive, CNN's Chad Myers says
  • The Pfeiffer Fire is virtually untamed, with only 5% contained

Big Sur, California (CNN) -- A nearly uncontrollable 550-acre wildfire showed no mercy Tuesday and burned several homes in California's Big Sur, including the fire chief's.

That twist wasn't lost on Fire Chief Martha Karstens of the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade. She oversees firefighters in a coastal wilderness renowned for its raw beauty.

"The irony doesn't escape me, and again, I try to set an example for fire clearance," Karstens told CNN.

With severe drought conditions in the chaparral and timberland, the erratic fire was burning nearly uncontrollably, with only 5% of it contained, authorities said.

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"The situation was too much," Karstens said of the wildfire, whose growth potential was rated "high" by fire officials.

"I went out to fight a fire. I had my purse, my cell phone and my glasses, and I didn't know I was going to be trying to save my own home," she said.

Firefighters have 36 hours to put out the fire before a weather system brings 30-mph gusts to Big Sur, which could energize and expand the wildfire, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.

"It's the wind that's going to get so very bad," Myers said. "It's going to get ugly, and it's going to get ugly fast.

"This is going to be a big fire if we don't get it out in the next 36 hours," he said midday Tuesday. "It's going to get tragically bigger."

Residences in the Pfeiffer Ridge community were evacuated.

About 500 personnel were fighting the Pfeiffer Fire, which started about midnight Monday, and its cause is still being investigated, officials said.

The Pacific Coast Highway, also known as California Highway 1, remained open in Big Sur, authorities said Tuesday.

Almost all of California is in a severe or extreme drought, the National Drought Mitigation Center website says.

The Big Sur area is listed as being in a severe drought, and cattlemen such as Dick Nock are struggling with an extreme drought just down the coast.

Nock's rangeland along California's picturesque central coast usually shimmers in a green grass blanket in December, but not in this dry spell.

"Everywhere you look, it's just dirt. This is the worst drought I've ever seen in 80 years," he said.

Nock recently thinned his herd from 400 to 200 cattle to save money. His livestock require expensive hay, he explained.

San Luis Obispo and neighboring Santa Barbara counties have been tagged with "extreme" conditions. For example, the 5,000-acre Lake San Antonio in the San Luis Obispo County coastal mountains has shrunk to 5% of its capacity, closing boat ramps in October, officials said.

Fire officials south of Big Sur are on alert for brush fires there, said Robert Lewin, the Cal Fire Chief for San Luis Obispo County.

CNN's Dan Simon contributed from the Big Sur, and Paul Vercammen contributed from San Luis Obispo County. Michael Martinez wrote from Los Angeles.

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