“The Central Coast is burning down,” laments Susie Bright in her daily blog on June 25. “Big Sur has been on the edge of destruction since the weekend : The air is orange and choking gray with smoke, the heat like an iron:.
“I can’t tell you how this is going to end. Local residents and Forest Service people are going at it with their bare hands, bulldozing everything in sight to defend their homes. Everyone is primed to evacuate, if they haven’t been already; all are displaced.”
The longtime feminist activist and host of a weekly radio program entitled In Bed with Susie Bright knows the Big Sur coast well and is saddened by what she worries will be the destruction of a community that nurtured the likes of Henry Miller and Robinson Jeffers, countless Beat Generation artists, writers, and poets, as well as its influence on psychotherapy, modern architecture, and nature photography.
The fires began on Saturday, June 21, a bit before 1 p.m. when a thunder cell moved onshore just south of Big Sur. The lightning strikes sparked three new fires. Two of them, eventually dubbed the Gallery and Basin fires, immediately took off.
The statistics are easy to rattle off: the total amounts of acreage burned, firefighters on the scene, numbers of engines and aircraft rise steadily. Despite massive efforts, by June 25 the fires have merged to form one large chunk of burning wilderness that is slowly expanding outward into the interior, the flames working their way north toward Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, northeast toward Tassajara Hot Springs, and southeast up the north and south forks of the Big Sur River.
For those who love this wilderness and are concerned about which parts are burning, by now the fire has eaten its way through Sykes Camp and the hot springs, burned up over the top of the Ventana Double Cones, and is threatening to make an end run north around the backside of Mount Manuel.
This morning’s press release from Kathy Good, the Forest Service PIO (Sunday, June 29), does not bode well. Late Saturday night the fire had been extremely active, burning to the north, south, and to the east. In short, it is expanding in all directions into the interior. With the terrain being extremely steep and the chaparral loaded with dead or drying fuels, the fire is expected to continue to burn actively towards the Palo Colorado community which is located north of Big Sur.
Looking at the map it is easy to see that much of the area that is burning is inside the Ventana Wilderness where there are no roads, no easy access, and very few safety zones from which firefighters might be able to work directly on the advancing flames.
It is possible before this fire is out that most of the Ventana Wilderness will be charred, similar to what occurred with the Zaca Fire last year and the Day Fire the year before. The difference here, though, is that both hundreds of houses and a way of life that has been built up over the past century may be at stake.
I will be up in the Big Sur area early Monday morning to get a handle on the fire’s impacts, but my conversations with several local community members already has left an uneasy feeling inside me.
Kody Greenwood grew up on the Big Sur coast and for the past week he has been working 16-hour days with friends building fire lines in places where there aren’t enough firefighters to do the job. “I’ve seen that the Forest Service is saying that there are 16 homes that have been destroyed, but I’ve seen a handful of others totally burned out that aren’t on the list.”
Kody paused, and then explained, “So many of those who live here aren’t the rich ones, those with the big houses. Many of them are just the regulars that make up much of the Big Sur community, those that have the low-paying jobs but live here anyway because we love it so much.
“Many of them live in small places in the backs of other properties, tucked away where they really aren’t seen. There may be hundreds of homes that are still at risk, but there are already a lot of people who don’t have anything to go back to.”
The historic Stone House, located on Graves Ridge, one of the areas first hit by the fire, was one of those that burned. Built by Spanish stone masons in 1924 for the late poet Harry Lafler, it was reportedly the scene of visits by Jack London, John Steinbeck, and Robinson Jeffers, among others.
Set on one of the many open ridges, with impressive views of the coast and the deep, forested canyons on either side, it was directly in the path of the fire. Where there were once exquisitely cut stone walls and hand -carved wooden beams, now there is little but ruins.
“I lost everything in 1979 when my home burned down,” Susie Bright remembers. “All my diaries from when I was a girl, my family letters, all the books and photographs. The stench was with me for years – and I found that this weekend’s events sent me sobbing back under a blanket, like a child.”
For now, residents like Kody Greenwood are so busy dealing with the immediacy of the fire that there is little time to reflect or to think too far into the future. There is simply too much to do.
That will change, too, and one wonders what life will hold when the fire is over, the firefighters have gone, and reality sets in.