Big Sur was on fire as Fourth of July weekend began in 2008, but the thing that kept Kate Novoa up all night was not the Basin Complex Fire itself. It was an announcement shortly after 5pm at the beginning of the weekend by then-sheriff Mike Kanalakis that residents who did not comply with evacuation orders would be arrested, even if they’d stayed to defend their homes.
Novoa, a since-retired attorney who lives on Plaskett Ridge on the South Coast of Big Sur, started placing calls to leaders she knew – the county supervisor and staff who represented her district – but they’d gone home for a three-day holiday.
“That’s when I got very pissed off, to put it mildly,” Novoa says. “I came unglued.”
She stayed up all night to teach herself the basics of WordPress, and on July 5, 2008, published her first blog post as Big Sur Kate. She hoped that the press would illuminate the extremeness of the policy and get it changed: “My original vision was that if I couldn’t get a hold of anyone, the only thing that would work would be a journalistic approach,” she says.
But in the days that followed, as the fire burned 162,818 acres, Novoa followed the details of the firefight. She thought after the fire ended, she might retire the blog. But then in October 2008, she could see the Chalk Fire burning from her home, and started posting again.
Then came the winter rains and with them, slides and major road damage. A friend at Caltrans gave her tips, and she kept blogging.
And in the 12 years since, she has never stopped. Big Sur Kate has become the closest thing to an official information source for all emergency – and evacuation-related news in Big Sur, with people providing photos of smoke and reporting what look like wildfires even before there’s an official announcement out.
Even today there is no single destination for updates on road closures, weather, firefighting strategy and evacuations from various jurisdictions. Not only has Novoa formed relationships with fire officials who give her details in order to inform the public, she has schooled herself on fire behavior, reading technical books. “A lot of people tell me they rely on my blog,” Novoa says.
That includes the firefighting community. During a break in the Chalk Fire, Novoa was driving to the annual Jade Festival for her regular gig running the main booth. She got a flat tire on the way, and two firefighters stopped to help her; one of them was celebrating his 21st birthday that day, and asked Novoa to post his photo. She did, and the young man’s family was thrilled to find information about their son and his work, and the blog spread among firefighters’ families.
This fire season, when three major fires started within three days, Novoa divvied up the work. Lucas Ryan, a contributor based in Carmel Valley, took on posting about the River and Carmel fires, while Novoa covered the Dolan Fire. “Kate likes to stick to the facts and not speculate,” Ryan says. “My role is to be her support in case she needs me, or can’t get to a computer.”
Ryan himself was evacuated due to the Carmel Fire. Days after he returned home, Novoa was evacuated.
When she got orders on Sept. 8, she was ready, her Sprinter van packed and loaded with dog food for her border collie and German shepherd. She’s staying at an RV park in Paso Robles, using her hotspot to stay connected.
Novoa evacuated once before, in 2000, with no notice. “I looked outside and there were the flames coming at me,” she says.
This evacuation was easier in that she was prepared. But it’s harder in a different way. At that time, she lived in a 25-foot trailer and didn’t worry about it burning. “Now I’ve built a beautiful house that I designed myself, and it took me nine years,” she says. “It was emotional leaving that place behind not knowing if I was going to see it again. But I was driving a huge van by myself, and I couldn’t afford to break down, I didn’t have that luxury. I probably will when I get home.”