By Laila Kearney
Dec 16 (Reuters) - A wildfire that erupted in a scenic stretch of California's central coastline late Sunday night has destroyed at least 15 homes and forced many residents to evacuate, county and fire officials said.
The fire in Big Sur - the stunning, mountainous region south of the Monterey Peninsula that reaches into the Los Padres National Forest - grew to 550 acres (223 hectares) by late Monday afternoon.
No injuries have been reported in the blaze, which started near the Big Sur Lodge and was fueled by dry brush and high winds, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Andrew Madsen said.
Some 300 firefighters were battling the blaze by Monday afternoon and more were expected to arrive on the scene by nightfall, Madsen said.
Four air tankers and four helicopters were dropping fire retardant on the flames from above, but the fire had remained entirely uncontained, Madsen said.
"This is an area that hasn't burned in quite a while and there's a real buildup of dead and decadent vegetation," Madsen said. He said strong gusts of wind overnight caused the fire to spread and the area's steep terrain has hindered fire crews from digging containment lines.
Between 15 and 20 homes have been claimed by the fire and residences along Pfeiffer Ridge Road and Sycamore Canyon Road were evacuated overnight, said Monterey County spokeswoman Maia Carroll. It was not immediately clear how many homes were threatened or evacuated.
A preschool and an elementary school in the area were closed on Monday due to the fire, Carroll said.
By late Monday, the fire was mainly burning on Big Sur's Pfeiffer Ridge on the west side of State Route 1, the highway that runs north and south along the Pacific Coast in California. Because of its location, firefighters dubbed it the Pfeiffer fire.
The coast road had not been closed as of late Monday, Madsen said.
Hikers, campers and sightseers visit Big Sur for its sweeping views and lush beaches. It is home to wealthy permanent and part-time residents as well as those living off the grid in "eclectic residences," Carroll said.
Madsen said the fire started near Big Sur Lodge, but the cause of the fire is still under investigation. (Reporting by Laila Kearney in San Francisco; Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Lisa Shumaker)