The topography is just one of the issues facing fire managers trying to contain the massive 57,500 acre Soberanes Fire near Big Sur.
The fire is burning in chaparral, tall grass and timber, in a remote, rugged area of coastal mountains and canyons that includes the Los Padres National Forest.
"And since it's so remote in terms of road access, just difficult terrain in general - very steep slopes - you get a fire in there like it is right now, and it really is a difficult conundrum for managers," says UC Berkeley Professor of Fire Science Scott Stephens, who is also co-director of the Center for Fire Research and Outreach at the school.
He says the spread of the wildfire is driven by topography and dry fuels, including shrubs, oaks and some conifer trees.
And Stephens says that means fire burns up slopes more quickly, causing bigger flames.
"I don't think the fire managers in that kind of terrain can do more than actually look at it strategically and figure out where they can make a stand and actually try to keep that fire from causing harm to human facilities," says Stephens. "But other than that, it's a very difficult fire to access, very dangerous for firefighters."
Stephens says the ecosystem has "adapted" to fire, but there hasn't been any fires in that area "in decades."
He says planned restoration efforts - such as thinning and/or prescribed burns - may prevent fires like the one near Big Sur from growing so quickly.
A private contractor, Robert Reagan III, 35, was killed when the bulldozer he was working overturned at the Soberanes Fire on July 26.
The cause of the fire is an illegal campfire that was abandoned. Anyone with information is asked to call the Cal Fire Tip Line (800) 468-4408.
More than 5,636 personnel are working the Soberanes Fire, which was 45 percent contained as of August 6.
In a recent update, fire managers reported that "fuel driven runs continue in the South and East portions of the fire. Fire continues to burn in steep, rugged and inaccessible terrain."
Since the fire started July 22, 57 homes and 11 outbuildings have been destroyed. Three residences and two outbuildings have been damaged.
The National Interagency Fire Center reported Aug. 5 that the Soberanes Fire was one of 37 large, active wildfires in the U.S.