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Big Sur fire resulted from embers from a private burn pile, officials determine

by Andy Picon, San Francisco Chronicle |

The Colorado Fire that has been tearing through parts of the Big Sur coast this week was sparked by hot embers from a private pile burning operation, fire officials said.

The winter blaze ignited Friday night in the Palo Colorado Canyon and by Tuesday was burning about 700 acres in the hills of Monterey County, having triggered evacuation orders, shutting down a portion of Highway 1 and destroying one structure. The fire was 45% contained Tuesday, according to Cal Fire.

Strong winds in the region Friday evening blew hot embers from the burning operation onto vegetation nearby, starting the fire, Cal Fire said Tuesday.

Jon Heggie, a Cal Fire battalion chief, said the burning operation appeared to have been on a residential property. Whether the residents had a burn permit, which is required in the area where the fire started, is under investigation, he said.

Strong winds swept through much of coastal California Friday night, reaching speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. The gusts made for prime fire-starting conditions, and once the blaze sparked, the winds fanned the flames, posing challenges for firefighters, officials said.

“Obviously when there’s fire danger and high winds are blowing it’s not a good idea to have debris burning at any point, just because of the potential of starting a fire,” Heggie said.

A January wildfire, while not common, is not unheard of, Heggie said. The ongoing dry spell this winter and the coast’s dry terrain may have contributed to the Colorado Fire’s growth.

Best practice for debris burning calls for a “defensible space strategy,” Cal Fire officials said. The agency recommends that piles of debris set to be burned be smaller than four feet in diameter. Maintain at least 10 feet of clearance around the burn pile and keep water and a shovel handy, officials said.