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Flames Devour Posh Homes, Force Hundreds To Flee

June 2, 1987

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) _ A campfire that got out of control was blamed Monday for a wind-fanned blaze that hopped from roof to roof in this exclusive area, burning 37 homes, causing $16 million damage and forcing more than 200 people to flee.

″It’s awful,″ groaned Tom Oliver, president of Pebble Beach Co., which owns roads and other facilities in the area. Surveying the charred landscape beneath the smoke-tinged, orange sky, he added: ″Isn’t it just terrible? Last night it looked like Dante’s ’Inferno.‴

George Alex, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry, said investigators had found a campfire and ″evidence that leads them to believe there was a party by juveniles″ before the blaze started Sunday afternoon.

The fast-moving flames quickly hopscotched through homes nestled in about 140 acres of brush and woods. Nine people, including eight firefighters, suffered minor injuries.

The fire was fully contained and 75 percent controlled at 6 p.m. Monday, said Forestry Department information officer Bill Bruno. Residents were allowed to return to the neighborhood about two hours later.

Meanwhile, Gov. George Deukmejian proclaimed a state of emergency in Monterey County because of the fire. The proclamation is necessary for local government, individuals and companies in the affected area to qualify for federal aide and low-interest reconstruction loans.

The first wisps of smoke were spotted near 17-Mile Drive, a private road that attracts about 1.5 million tourists annually for a look at the exclusive residences, the craggy Pacific coastline and several famous golf courses. The area in the immediate vicinity of the drive was spared from the fire.

″It could have been much worse if we didn’t have the type of coordinated response we got from all the agencies involved,″ said Mark Verbonich, vice president for property services at Pebble Beach Co.

Verbonich had said earlier that 56 homes were damaged or destroyed, but he later said that figure was wrong. The number was revised to 31 homes destroyed and six others damaged.

He estimated the damage to the houses at $16 million. Verbonich said the houses destroyed were worth an average of $500,000, with some as expensive as $750,000 to $800,000.

Despite the devastation, he said, ″I’m sure it will be rehabilitated, reseeded and brought back. I’m sure the houses will be rebuilt.″

As the flames threatened, some residents fled while others stayed as long as they could to hose down the roofs of their houses.

″We’re safe,″ said Dr. Jim Halpern, whose house was leveled by the fire, ″but we lost a home, lots of photographs and a lifetime of memories.″

At the home of John Panetta, brother of U.S. Rep. Leon Panetta, an open safe in a pile of ashes was all that remained.

Nearby, Richard and Claire Miller’s home survived, leaving the retired Navy man and his wife with mixed emotions.

″We’re happy for ourselves, but for our neighbors, it’s a terrible tragedy, and for the forest.″

″The winds were feeding the flames,″ said mortgage broker John Feehan, another lucky resident. ″If the winds had shifted, my house would have been hit.″

Jess Mullen and her husband, Frank, were walking through the area where the fire started moments before the flames erupted.

After smelling smoke, Mrs. Mullen said, they ″walked toward our house about a half-mile away and it was only 15 minutes but the wind blew and blew and blew and suddenly there were flames and smoke everywhere. I’ve never seen anything like it.″

Their house survived the flames after they soaked it with hoses for four hours.

Eight firefighters and one resident suffered minor injuries battling the blaze, which closed Highway 68 between Highway 1 and Pacific Grove and spread heavy smoke and ash throughout the area.

Two hundred people fled to a Red Cross emergency center in the Monterey Peninsula College gymnasium, said Art McDole, Monterey County’s emergency communications director. Others were housed without charge at motels, and some stayed with friends and relatives.

″They’ve lost everything,″ said Robyn Noe, manager of the Park Crest Motel in Monterey, who allowed four elderly residents to stay free for the night. ″Some got out with a few clothes, some got out with nothing.″

At The Lodge at Pebble Beach, 12 people stayed free at the $200-a-day facility, said spokeswoman Joanna Brody.

Fanned by brisk afternoon winds, the fire began at 3:30 p.m. in an inaccessible part of the Morse Botanical Reserve. Although the high winds calmed down late Sunday, firefighters encountered another problem - wood shingle roofs.

Pebble Beach, about 90 miles south of San Francisco, is considered one of the world’s most expensive pieces of real estate and is home to Pebble Beach, Spyglass and Cypress Point golf courses, where the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro Am, formerly called the Bing Crosby Open, is played each year.

About 200 firefighters from the forestry department, nearly every police and fire department in Monterey County and some from neighboring counties helped battle the blaze.

Madeline Gage and some neighbors pitched in, using garden hoses to dampen flames in a lot next to her home.

″We were fighting the fire over here,″ said Ms. Gage, who escaped the fire in her Cadillac with two cockateels in a cage in the open trunk and two dogs riding in the back seat. ″This was a separate fire all by itself.″

The fire knocked out power to nearly 225 Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers in the Del Monte Forest by 8:30 p.m., but by Monday morning, just 30-40 remained without service, said spokesman Ron Weinberg.

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