Big Sur volunteer firefighters break ranks to save “indefensible” home.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Fire officials told Kate Healey her house was indefensible. Monterey County sheriff’s deputies told Healey she’d be arrested if she didn’t leave. So on June 22, Healey reluctantly left the upper Partington Ridge home and ranch where she grew up and gave birth to her four children.
Crystal Wilson, a captain with the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade, also has roots on Partington Ridge. Her mother delivered Healey’s children. When fire chiefs called their crews off of Partington, Wilson and her husband Tom Gries scrambled to find a fire truck. They ended up forming their own crew to stop the flames from reaching Healey’s home. “[The brigade] didn’t have enough resources to commit up there for multiple days,” Wilson says, adding that her chiefs thought the fire could trap them. “I knew that area well enough that I knew I had safety zones and escape routes.”
The crew secured a fire engine and a water tender. They cleared off an old fire road down the hill from Healey’s house. They sawed down trees and took a stand the night of June 23. Pumping in water from a neighboring pool, the crew fought the fire into early morning. “We fought the fire for four and half hours until we got overrun,” Wilson says. They cooled down the fire enough that it steered clear of Healey’s home.
Healey also credits Big Sur resident Kevin Southall, who helped fight the blaze. “They definitely saved my structure,” Healey says. “I lost my greenhouse, lost my deck… but they saved the so-called indefensible property by breaking rank.”
Frank Pinney, chief of the fire brigade, says he doesn’t have personal knowledge of the incident and declined to comment.
Wilson says she was just doing what she was trained to do: fight fires. “We are saving our community,” she says. “So what if we get stuck up there for days? [Partington is] one of the most populated ridges in Big Sur. So where else they need to put their resources at that time is totally besides me– especially when we have engines sitting on the highway.”
Pinney won’t go into detail about the allegation that the fire brigade’s resources were underutilized. The brigade fell under a unified command, which includes the U.S. Forest Service and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). “We all worked together,” Pinney says. “We did the best we could.”
Deputies ordered residents who didn’t evacuate to stay on their properties– or potentially face arrest. Healey and her son, Quinn Hacker, crept around on their quad, putting out spot fires and feeding neighbor’s cats. Friends had to stash supplies for them to pick up. “Big Sur has a long history of helping your neighbors,” Healey says. “By putting everyone on house arrest no one could help anybody.”
About a week into their stakeout, the fire reignited below Healey’s daughter’s cabin. At one point Healey was hanging out of a tree with a fire hose attempting to extinguish the blaze. Two deputies on ATVs drove in. The deputies asked for their names and birth dates, according to Healey. The deputies said they would call in the fire brigade. The brigade never came.
“If Quinn and I had not been here, the fire would have gone back up that draw,” Healey says. “We would have had a whole repeat.”
Healey continued to evade authorities until the mandatory evacuation was lifted July 8. “I felt like we were the French resistance here,” she says walking near a smoldering stump.
While the fires raged, Healey and other independent-minded Big Sur residents routinely clashed with law enforcement. When officials issued mandatory evacuation orders for all of Big Sur on July 2, hundreds of residents stayed behind to protect their homes or businesses, knowing that fire-fighting resources were limited because of the state’s raging wildfires. But this meant that residents couldn’t drive or walk on Highway 1, forcing them to stay in their homes or hide from deputies if they wanted to help their neighbors.
Ken Wright is a retired California Highway Patrol Officer who was stationed in Big Sur for 20 years. Wright stayed behind to protect the several houses he owns in Big Sur. “The work that I did– and what many people did– is what saved their homes,” Wright says.
But Wright says the road restrictions hampered him from helping others. “If I wanted to go to Apple Pie Ridge, if I wanted to use the highway I couldn’t do that. All of this is really kind of dumb in my mind. The idea that firefighters were being impacted, or there was a safety issue with firefighters, I don’t think that’s true at all.”
Sheriff’s Cmdr. Fred Garcia says the evacuations were done at the direction of the unified command. Deputies did have the authority to remove people from a fire evacuation area if they didn’t stay on their property, Garcia says. “We don’t want someone to be in mandatory evacuation area wandering all over the place,” he says. “Our first and foremost goal is to protect their lives, and the last thing I want to do is be in a position where we are not able to help someone who is blocked by a fire.”California Penal Code Section 409.5 says “any unauthorized person… who willfully remains within the area after receiving notice to evacuate or leave shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.” Garcia says the only resident who was arrested during the Big Sur fire was Ross Curtis, who was charged setting a backfire on Apple Pie Ridge.
Still, the threat of arrest unnerved self-reliant Big Sur residents. Kirk Gafill, general manager of Nepenthe, says there shouldn’t have been a blanket road closure on Highway 1. The restaurant, for example, has water tanks on the east side of the highway. “For us to walk across the highway to service those water systems,” Gafill says, “we were subject to detention and removal from evacuation zone.”
Nepenthe was stocked with food for Fourth of July weekend but couldn’t deliver any to neighbors without breaking the rules. “We were having to throw away food everyday that was perishable,” Gafill says. “And we had neighbors that were lacking in food. They had to risk arrest as did we to take them food.”
Residents also complain that deputies treated residents rudely and disrespectfully. “They are here as law enforcement officers to assist and protect,” Wright says. “They are not here as law enforcement officers to harass and intimidate.”
Garcia is apologetic. “Our goal is not to be rude or obnoxious or anything. Sometimes we get a little grouchy. We don’t mean to come across as rude or unhelpful or unsympathetic.”
Back on Partington Ridge, Hacker and his friend, Dustin Garber, prep Hacker’s truck to haul loads to the dump. Hacker recently installed a temporary water system, and the power is back on. Although there is a lot of cleanup ahead, Healey says she’s grateful she still has a roof over her head. Healey’s father, archeologist Giles Healey, built the cabin in the ’60s.
“Some people are calling this Rebel Ridge,” Healey jokes. “We are thinking of doing T-shirts: Renegade Brigade: I Survived Martial Law in Big Sur.”