This passage is excerpted from a story originally published in the Weekly on Dec. 19, 2013, three days after the Pfeiffer Fire began in Big Sur. The fire eventually burned 917 acres and destroyed 34 homes.
SOMETHING UNWELCOME AWOKE CELIA SANBORN JUST BEFORE MIDNIGHT.
She could smell it, wafting into her home: the unmistakable smell of burning. She alerted her husband Ray and rushed out of their Pfeiffer Ridge home, trying to get a read on how close it was.
As she made her way to the end of the driveway, burning embers fell from the sky. Then she confronted a sight that stopped her in her tracks: a wall of flames she estimates at 30 to 40 feet tall.
There would be no time for saving things.
Celia ran back to the house to tell Ray it was time to leave. Now. The couple raced to their cars, jumped in and sped off uphill, away from the flames, with Celia laying on the horn the whole way to alert sleeping neighbors.
They drove to pick up Celia’s mother, Helen Morgenrath, whose home is also on Pfeiffer Ridge, where she’s lived for decades.
It was hours before dawn on Monday, Dec. 16. As the Sanborns and Morgenrath found shelter in the Big Sur Roadhouse later that afternoon, which is owned by Ray and Celia’s son Basil Sanborn, ashes rained down outside and smoke blanketed the valley. The Sanborns escaped with nothing from their house, a small rustic cabin that Ray built himself in 1973. Even his wallet burned.
But concerns for the community trumped material concerns. They spent the night worrying about a neighbor who had stayed on to save his home, later learning it was lost. Their fears for his safety were allayed when they saw him later Monday morning. His face was blackened. The tail light covers on his car had completely melted. But he was here, albeit without a house.
In a night full of surprises, the biggest for Ray was the speed with which the fire moved.
“I never thought this could happen,” he says. “We had no time. If [Celia] didn’t wake up, who knows.”
THE PFEIFFER FIRE WAS FIRST REPORTED TO CAL FIRE AT 11:50PM SUNDAY.
“I’m on Pfeiffer Ridge in Big Sur, and I think there’s a fire somewhere, I can’t tell where it is,” says Patricia Holt in a 911 call. “I think it’s down the hill,” she says. “I can’t tell in the dark.”
“The fire sounded like an animal, like a roar,” says Chelsea Davey, a Big Sur native who arrived early Monday morning to help save her family’s nearby Sycamore Canyon home.
Other spooky sounds filled the night. From 2am on, Big Sur resident Levi DeKeyrel, reports hearing the unnerving booms of exploding propane tanks while sitting outside on Apple Pie Ridge.
“The tops would pop, and all of the gas would shoot out, 20 to 30 feet in the air,” he says.
The sight, he adds, was like a flamethrower, the sound like a jet engine.
Cal Fire, the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade, the Los Padres National Forest fire team and other agencies quickly scrambled to respond to the latest disaster to strike the Big Sur Coast, during the driest California year in recorded history.
More than 125 acres had burned by sunrise, drawing more than 130 firefighters, with more on the way. As of 11:20am, the fire was at 300 acres, with evacuations orders for 50 homes.
The sky was filled with ash.