Watch CBSN Live

Wildfires threaten California's signature parks along Big Sur coastline

Southern California wildfire

BIG SUR, Calif. -- California's signature parks along the Big Sur coastline that draw thousands of daily visitors were closed Tuesday as one of the state's two major wildfires threatened the scenic region at the height of the summer tourism season.

Thousands in California evacuate as wildfire closes in

To the south, firefighters made progress containing a huge blaze in mountains outside Los Angeles, allowing authorities to let most of 20,000 people evacuated over the weekend to return home. In Wyoming, a large backcountry wildfire in the Shoshone National Forest put about 290 homes and guest ranches at risk.

The Big Sur closures were put into place for parks that draw 7,500 visitors daily from around the world for their dramatic vistas of ocean and mountains along Highway 1 near storied Monterey Bay.

The California park shutdowns came as a fire that started Friday just north of Big Sur grew Tuesday to 30 square miles but was just 10 percent contained. Twenty homes have burned in the zone, residents of 300 more were ordered to evacuate and more than 2,000 firefighters were trying to douse the blaze.

"At any point in time this fire can change directions, can spread very quickly and if that happens there could be embers that fly a mile ahead of the main fire," said Richard Cordova, a state fire captain.

Park roads, trails and camping sites in five parks and a nature reserve were closed as a safety precaution because of thick smoke causing unhealthy air quality and to keep the roads free of traffic for firefighters, said state parks spokesman Dennis Weber.

The Wyoming fire in a remote region burned nearly 11 square miles and forced the evacuations of 900 people but no homes had burned by Tuesday afternoon, authorities said.

In neighboring Bridger-Teton National Forest, a fire grew to 26 square miles and was partially contained. Two smaller fires were burning in the Bighorn National Forest.Homeowners returned to a Sand Canyon neighborhood Monday night, days after the raging Sand Fire tore through the area. The Sand Fire near Los Angeles has consumed at least 10,000 acres of land a day, the equivalent of 10,000 football fields.

For some Southern California resident like John Kim, returning to the area meant picking through the remains of his home, CBS Los Angeles reported.

It marked his first look at the charred remains since fleeing the fire, which has now scorched 55 square miles.

"The fire came from that side, like a big wave, all at one time," said Kim, who shot video before escaping.

He, his wife, and daughters all made it out safely and were able to rescue some family photos and heirlooms.

But much of his home was reduced to rubble.

California wildfire has burned 20,000 acres so far

"I'm not okay but again what could I say? The only thing ... we pray harder. And I'm sure that we're gonna be okay," he said.

Kim's neighbor died in his car trying to outrun the flames. The victim was a man in his 60's.

He lived on the property with a woman, who was too distraught to speak. Their home also burned to the ground.

Kim says the man who died went back to rescue his dog.

"Boyfriend went back to bring the dog and cellular phone and so on," he said. "Then, he couldn't make it."

Other neighbors came out unscathed. But flames came within just a few feet of David Garcia's home.

"It wrapped around our whole home. So, our home luckily still stands but to see the flames the way that they did, they wiped out the whole valley," he said.

As of Monday night, a hot spot was visible inside what remained of Kim's home. Crews were on-scene.

In Southern California, the fire in rugged wilderness between the northern edge of Los Angeles and the suburban city of Santa Clarita grew to 58½ square miles.

Heat fueling wildfires in the West

But authorities said Tuesday they had managed to contain 25 percent of the area, meaning the flames there had been isolated and were not expected to spread. They warned, however, that the fire was still extremely dangerous and would take time to put out.

"We're not really out of the woods," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Justin Correll. "We're not ready to relax. There's still a lot of firefighting to do."

The 3,000 firefighters faced another day of temperatures in the 90s to low 100s as they fought the fire, aided by fleets aircraft dropping retardant and water and hundreds of fire engines.

The fire has destroyed 18 homes since it started and authorities over the weekend discovered the burned body of a man in a car. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is investigating the death.

Acting Gov. Tom Torlakson, substituting for Gov. Jerry Brown who is at the Democratic National Convention with other top state officials, declared a state of emergency for the fire on Tuesday night. The move frees up funding and relaxes regulations to help with the firefight and the recovery.

The 3,000 firefighters faced another day of temperatures in the 90s to low 100s as they fought the fire, aided by fleets aircraft dropping retardant and water and hundreds of fire engines.

Some neighborhoods in Santa Clarita, population about 200,000, remained off limits Tuesday because of the fire. But most evacuations ordered for about 10,000 homes with an estimated 20,000 residents were lifted.

Lane Leavitt, who trains stunt actors and specializes in setting people on fire for movies and television, was relieved when he returned home Monday evening to find his home and business fully intact.

Fireworks spark wildfire worries amid busy fire season

"It's a miracle everything was there," he said from his home across the street from a ranch used to make movies where the sets were incinerated.

Leavitt and his son on Saturday used extinguishers to battle a 50-foot (15-meter) circle of flames in the backyard before firefighters arrived. Without that effort, he said, the fire probably would have consumed six tall pine trees that could have exploded and sent flaming limbs flying onto his house.

Friends and clients from around the world called and texted Leavitt, worried he lost everything after he abandoned the house with fire burning on two sides of it.

He repeated the same text message back them: "We're still standing."

View CBS News In