Wednesday, July 27, 2016

[californiadisasters] Big Sur fire: Big blaze brings wildfire season to CA's central coast

Big Sur fire: Big blaze brings wildfire season to California's central coast

By Lisa M. Krieger and Sophie Mattson, Staff writers
Posted:   07/27/2016 07:34:21 PM PDT | Updated:   9 min. ago

CARMEL VALLEY -- Central coastal California's first major wildfire of the season continued to rage eastward on Wednesday through this parched mountain wilderness, sparking anxiety among the residents of the picturesque Carmel Highlands, Carmel Valley and nameless canyons and ridge tops in this rugged Eden.

The blaze had covered more than 23,000 acres as of Wednesday evening, destroying at least 20 homes and claiming its first victim: a bulldozer driver who was killed when his vehicle rolled over while he was digging a fire break.
While the early wrath of California's fire season has mostly afflicted the bone-dry southern part of the state, residents here say the flames racing through Big Sur this week are a reminder that one rainy winter after years of drought is no fix for Northern California.

Nearby resident Matthew Borek watches as firefighters battle flames that crossed Palo Colorado Rd. as the Soberanes fire burns in the Carmel Highlands,
Nearby resident Matthew Borek watches as firefighters battle flames that crossed Palo Colorado Rd. as the Soberanes fire burns in the Carmel Highlands, Calif., Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)

"There's a lot of fuel out there ready to explode -- and exploding. We have been expecting it," said Kate Novoa, who tracks fires on her popular BigSurKate blog written from her 3,275-foot-high cabin atop Plaskett Ridge, near the Ventana Wilderness of Los Padres National Forest.
The dramatic landscape has inspired generations of artists, writers and vacationers -- and also is a tinderbox that is easily ignited, like much of rural California.
"There is only so much that can be done in terrain like ours to contain a fire of this magnitude," said Gina Weston, of Carmel Highlands, whose husband Kim is the grandson of famed photographer Edward Weston. His photographs of the trees and rocks of Point Lobos made him one of the most influential photographers of the American West.

The Weston family has spent days gathering four generations of irreplaceable art in case the winds shift and flames approach. They keep a close watch on the Soberanes fire's progress from the famed photographer's home, studio and darkroom atop Wildcat Hill.
Although El NiƱo rains last winter gave Northern California a reprieve from the drought, they didn't completely offset the dryness deep in the soil and spawned more grass and brush growth, increasing wildfire risk.

Southern California has remained bone-dry. This week, firefighters are battling five wildfires there, including the Sand fire, which has burned more than 38,000 acres in Los Angeles County and is only 40 percent contained.

"Much of Northern California had a decent amount of rain this winter, but much of the southern region is still in pretty critical drought. The fire in Monterey County is sort of on the cusp," said Max Moritz, a specialist at UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. "The fires so far do seem to indicate that we're in for a difficult fire season ahead."

Firefighters battle flames that crossed Palo Colorado Rd. as the Soberanes fire burns in the Carmel Highlands, Calif., Wednesday, July 27, 2016.
Firefighters battle flames that crossed Palo Colorado Rd. as the Soberanes fire burns in the Carmel Highlands, Calif., Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)

As of July 23, Cal Fire recorded 3,137 forest fires throughout the state -- not including national forests -- just three dozen more than there were through the same period last year. However, this year's fires have burned nearly 58,000 acres, compared with about 30,000 acres last year.

In the Big Sur area, the forested chaparral has grown over decades of aggressive fire suppression that began with the formation of the Monterey National Forest in 1907, according to Paul Henson's book "The Natural History of Big Sur." Between 1640 and 1907, fires burned here an average of every 21 years, according to fire ecologists. Now, they're far rarer -- and more catastrophic.

The Soberanes fire started Friday morning north of Big Sur in the 2,939-acre Garrapata State Park, at the juncture of steep cliffs, blue sea and the sweeping expanse of the Santa Lucia Range.

Officials have not confirmed how it started, but locals are angered by rumors of a campfire. There has been no lightning in the area, and the fire was ignited along the route of a 2-mile trail.

From its start near the coast, the blaze is now creeping east -- where it's hotter and drier, with less fog to quell it.

The entire Dormody family -- including 83-year-old matriarch Donna -- is working to clear dense brush and coordinate with firefighters to save their property.

"Fire is coming our way, burning a section of forest that hasn't burned in 70 years," said a sweat- and ash-stained Bruce Dormody of San Clemente Rancho, a creekside idyll of about 100 old cabins owned by generations of Bay Area families.

"We've built several miles of new fire breaks to keep flames from entering cabins," said Dormody. "We're trying to be proactive."

As of Wednesday, the fire was 10 percent contained. Firefighters vowed to block the fire's descent into more populated areas, such as the iconic Carmel Valley, home to vineyards, horse farms, a golf course and notable residents such as Leon Panetta, the former U.S. defense secretary who spoke Wednesday at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

"We won't let it get anywhere near Carmel Valley," said Cal Fire spokesman Robert Fish.

Likewise, officials vowed to block the fire's northward path toward Carmel Highlands, home to not only the Weston family residence but the century-old Hyatt Carmel Highlands hotel, a small one-room cabin rented by folk singer Joan Baez, elegant gardens, a house that once belonged to landscape photographer Ansel Adams and the famed D.L. James House, a rocky citadel designed by the iconic Greene & Greene architects.

Officials have yet to release the name of the bulldozer operator who was killed. He was a private contractor who was trained to work on fire lines alongside firefighters.

Authorities are not publicizing the locations of fire-damaged homes to deter looters, but most of the homes are believed to be along narrow Palo Colorado Road, which meanders through deep forest.

Gina Weston tracked the billowing clouds of smoke Wednesday. With her family's precious photographs now packed, she said a silent prayer of hope and gratitude.

"Even with everything off the walls, the walls themselves -- and everything they encapsulate -- won't fit in the back of our cars," she said.

"The most I can do is hope for gentle and favorable winds, courage and strength in our firefighters, and the continuation of our community's support and love for one another."

Staff Writer Rick Hurd contributed to this report. Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098. Follow her at and



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