This piece is excerpted from a story originally published by the Weekly on July 28, 2016, just after the Soberanes Fire destroyed 57 homes.
DAMIEN WAYNE STAYED AT HIS PLACE OFF A DIRT ROAD ON GREEN RIDGE Friday night, even after officials ordered evacuation, watching the fire to see if it would change directions. He stayed up all night, watching flames he says were easily 50 feet high from the top of the ridge. He locked his cat, Sym, in the bathroom to keep her inside while he paced, gathered belongings in case he would have to leave, and talked about the progression of the fire with neighbors who also stayed.
He gathered clothes, tools and a few photographs. “I didn’t take very much,” Wayne says. “I wasn’t really thinking about trying to save everything.”
By 9pm on Saturday, the fire was still headed his way. It was the intense heat that forced him out. “My place was probably the first to burn,” he says. “I was the closest.”
Wayne loaded Sym into a box, and opened it up to feed her down the road near the fire station. She spooked and ran, and is still at large.
He chokes up when he talks about the most heartbreaking loss: 20 beehives and an organic garden. “Maybe the bees will leave the hives and survive,” he says. “I don’t know.”
EVERY MONDAY AND TUESDAY NIGHT, Peter Evans plays flamenco guitar at Mundaka, a tapas restaurant in Carmel. The evening of Monday, July 25, was no different, except that Evans had come from his ex-wife Barbara’s home in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where he was staying. The home they built in 1970 along Rocky Creek, off Palo Colorado, had burned down. Two of Evans’ three guitars had burned with it.
“When they called Friday night and said, ‘Get out in two minutes,’ I thought, ‘I’m not going to stay, because this fire seems to be out of control,’ Evans says. “I didn’t have enough time to grab everything I would’ve.”
He took a toothbrush, but forgot a razor, and he grabbed a few photos of his wooden A-frame house, but none of his daughter when she was young.
“It’s a loss, but it doesn’t mean you stop your life,” he says. “You keep moving forward.”
That’s why he’s at Mundaka, playing flamenco for a group of about 25 Palo Colorado residents who have all fled the fire. They gathered to eat free paella on offer to fire refugees, to debrief about what’s next and commiserate about their current quarters; one man stopped at Sur La Table to buy a decent kitchen knife. “They don’t have a knife I could cut an artichoke with,” he says of his temporary digs in Pebble Beach.
Besides the faint smell of smoke on some people’s clothes, there’s no way to tell this dinner gathering isn’t a party.
And for Evans, it’s just part of his regular routine: “I figured I should keep on living my life. It was better than sitting at home and moping.”
ON HER 63RD BIRTHDAY, July 25, Jerri Matsen Hansen woke up at 4am after just two hours of sleep, the most she’d gotten in three days. She was staying at her sister-in-law’s house in Pacific Grove after evacuating Palo Colorado, and called her home phone number. The answering machine picked up. “My answering machine would not come on if my house burned down,” Hansen says. “I can just celebrate that.”
A few days earlier, Hansen was one of the first people to report the fire, just before 9am on Friday, July 22. She smelled smoke and saw a dangerously familiar dark brown hue in the fog bank over the ocean. She immediately called 911, and a dispatcher told her a hiker had already called in to report seeing smoke at Garrapata State Park. Still, she didn’t think much of it; there’d been a small fire nearby just a week before, and she thought it might be a small flare-up.
Throughout the day, even as the fire progressed and the smoke thickened, it still looked hopeful.