Sula Nichols watched the fire destroy her Partington Ridge home.
“I saw it burn from around the corner,” she says, standing in the dirt where her house used to be. “I saw the cloud of smoke. It went up like a massive, black, dense column.”
Nichols lived on Partington Ridge for 30 years, 10 in a dome structure and 20 in the home whose walls used to rise between the charred oak trees and ashy hillside. She gave birth to three of her four children in this house where she lived with her kids and cats. Now it’s a blackened pile of rubble save for a few recognizable items: an antique stove, a basketball hoop, a candelabra decorated with metal leaves and birds, pots and pans, an unscathed white bowl covered in red chili peppers. An undulating tin roof covers most of the debris; a lizard scurries out from underneath.
“This was my house,” says Nichols, who speaks in a calm voice with a soft British accent. She carries a red diary to remember dates– when the fire started, when she evacuated the 15-acre property, when her home and two guesthouses burned down. “This was the fire we’ve all been dreading and knew was going to come at some point.”
Lightning struck California on June 21, igniting some 2,095 fires across 1 million acres– an area roughly the size of Rhode Island– to become the largest statewide fire event in recorded history. Officials still are calculating a price tag for the damage across the state.
The storm hit the Central Coast hard, sparking fires in Big Sur that scorched hillsides, consuming dry chaparral and dead tan oak in its path. Later, these fires would combine to form the Basin Complex wildfire, which at press time had burned 162,818 acres and destroyed 59 structures, including 31 homes. Another seven homes were damaged. All told, the fire caused more than $25 million in damages. It was 100 percent contained July 27 at 6pm.
Now residents like Nichols are homeless, staying with friends or renting while they try to figure out how to rebuild in Big Sur– and how to pay for it. Many were underinsured or uninsured for fire losses, and some insurance companies won’t pay for debris removal and other cleanup costs. And while– miraculously– none of Big Sur’s fabled landmarks, inns, restaurants and other businesses burned down, some suffered damage to water systems and other infrastructure, and lost all income during the height of the tourist season.
“WE DON’T HAVE A YES OR A NO FROM FEMA. IT’S HOLDING UP THE PROCESS.”
By all estimates, it will take years to rebuild homes and recover losses. Neither the state nor the county has money available to bail out victims. Big Sur’s Coast Property Owners Association (CPOA) set up a fire-relief fund, raising $320,000 to date and funding 632 grant requests. State and local officials say they’re “in a holding pattern,” hoping for the feds to declare the fire-affected counties a disaster, which would release federal dollars to help families and individuals, and speed access to low-interest loans for businesses. President Bush declared a state of emergency in the fire area– and sent in out-of-state firefighters, fire engines and helicopters to battle the blazes– but the disaster declaration has yet to happen. “We don’t have a yes or a no from FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency],” says Robert Clyburn, the county’s re-entry-recovery coordinator. “It’s holding up the process.”
Fire season started early this year. There are many more hot dry months to come– which will be followed by the rainy season. Burnt vegetation makes erosion and mudslides more likely. “We know the federal government will take care of erosion control in federal lands,” CPOA Secretary Lisa Kleissner says, “but they don’t take care of any county property, state property and private property. The federal lands are higher up, but we’re on the receiving end of anything coming downhill, and through the canyons. So the possibility of further loss of structure and loss of life along the highway is real.”
A team of federal officials visited Big Sur July 23 to survey the damage. “FEMA is asking the community to provide detailed information on losses when the community is just getting over the shock,” Kleissner says. Meanwhile, no one knows if or when the disaster declaration will come. “The whole process takes time, and we really don’t have time,” Kleissner says. “We’re looking at the end of July, and the rains come in October.”
Nichols was out of town on June 21. “My son called me,” she remembers, “and I raced back.” That night, she drove up the ridge with a horse trailer and moved five horses into town. Nichols returned on June 22 and packed her cats and a few belongings into her Chevy Silverado truck– the dining room table, rugs, bedding, passports, birth certificates. “And then I just sort of gave up,” she says. “Had there been more planning, more calm heads, I could have gotten a lot more out and possibly could have saved this house.”
As she drove away, fire officials told Nichols a mandatory evacuation order had been issued, and she wouldn’t be allowed to return to Partington Ridge. Nichols says sheriff’s deputies threatened to arrest her when she drove in on an ATV on June 23. She says her house burned down that day between 10am and 1pm. “I saw the back smoke and I knew it was over,” she says.
A few days later, she snuck back to her property to see the damage. “I had completely resigned myself, but when you come see it for the first time, you cannot believe 20 years of building and living can be reduced to a small patch of rubble. But you also realize the fantastic impermanence of things.”
Nearly a month later, Nichols talks about the things she lost– her artwork, a manuscript written by her African-born grandmother, first-edition books– with Zen-like composure. “We need fire,” she says. “Fire is an important part of the balance.” She also says fire officials should consider controlled burns, especially in wooded areas near homes and structures. And she believes that residents who live in such areas should educate themselves about fire.
“I’m a great believer that these hills needed this fire,” she says, “so if my house has to be sacrificed for that, so be it. Part of me is devastated, but it’s done now and I have to move on. I plan to rebuild. I don’t want to go anywhere. This place is the love of my life. I’m hoping the county will help me.”
On July 22, county supervisors approved Basin Complex Recovery Guidelines intended to expedite the rebuilding process and waive permit fees for property owners who want to rebuild homes and other structures. But for Nichols and others, there’s still the question of how to pay for construction. “I don’t have enough money in the bank,” she says. Her homeowners insurance won’t pay for the cleanup, so she’s trying to figure out how to remove the rubble without hiring a private company to do it for $10,000.
Southern Baptist Disaster Relief has volunteered to help with cleanup work at no cost to residents, Clyburn says, noting that the county is seeking help from other nonprofits to do likewise.
In addition, he says, Waste Management Inc. is considering donating bins and other receptacles to be used to clean up debris.
There’s a patch of bright green grass that survived the blaze, along with a wooden bench and a small deck that juts out from the ridge, overlooking Highway 1 and the blue Pacific Ocean far below. From the deck, the lavender planted nearby smells stronger than the charred brush. Nichols stands on the wood planks and looks across at the blackened hills. “It’s not too bad,” she says. “There’s still some green to look at.”
More than 25,000 firefighters from 41 states and Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Greece have been working in California to fight the blazes, according to Tom Maruyama, state Office of Emergency Services deputy director. Flames have destroyed 183 residences, one commercial building and 166 outbuildings statewide. Since June 21, FEMA has supplied $108 million in resources to the state.
At press time there had been 2,095 fires statewide; 2,068 had been contained and 27 were active. Almost 1.1 million acres had burned.
On June 26, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a letter to President Bush asking him to declare an emergency for the state of California, and provide federal assistance to help with firefighting efforts, debris removal, evacuation operations and emergency shelters for 11 counties, including Monterey County. A couple days later, Bush declared an emergency, and on July 9 he expanded the emergency declaration to allow state and local agencies to receive more federal funds to pay for firefighting and emergency costs. Two days later, on July 11, Schwarzenegger ordered an additional 2,000 California National Guard personnel to complete firefighter training to battle the ongoing fires and prepare for ones to come in the months ahead. “We already have 400 guard members on the front lines, and once these new troops are trained and certified, they will be ready to pitch in at a moment’s notice throughout the fire season,” Schwarzenegger said.
Out-of-state guard units and 21 aircraft also are fighting the fires. According to FEMA officials, 80 percent of federal firefighting resources have been deployed to California.
“THIS PLACE IS THE LOVE OF MY LIFE. I’M HOPING THE COUNTY WILL HELP ME.”
On July 17, President Bush visited California and discussed the federal and state responses to the wildfires with the governor. “I’d just like to let the people out here know that we’re paying attention in Washington D.C. We care about you, and that we’ll respond as best as we possibly can,” Bush said at the Redding airport before the two men took an aerial tour of the damage in the 2.1 million-acre Shasta-Trinity National Forest. This same day, voluntary evacuation orders remained in place for about 20 homes in Carmel Valley, and another 200 in Cachagua.
Neither state nor federal officials have estimates on the economic impacts of the fires throughout California. “Now that the fires are getting better contained, we’re now starting with the counties and local governments to assess the damage and get a better idea of those impacts,” Bob Fenton, acting director of disaster operations for FEMA’s region IX, said July 18.
Initial estimates put the damage to Monterey County households and homes at just under $25 million, Clyburn says. “But the true cost won’t be known until construction or repairs are completed. And I’m still adding up the economic impacts.”
With any emergency, be it an earthquake, flood, fire, terrorist attack or even an agricultural disaster, Clyburn says, OES’s first job is to respond to the incident. “Once we’re past the incident-response phase, we move on to phase two,” he says, “dealing with recovery. And the recovery will take months and years.”
As the county’s re-entry-recovery coordinator, Clyburn is the go-to guy for Big Sur residents and business owners who have lost property or profit because of the fire. Nepenthe’s Kirk Gafill, who is also the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce president, calls Clyburn “the center of gravity on the damage assessment.” Sitting in an OES conference room in Salinas, Clyburn says, “I prefer to do things behind the scenes.” He just wants to help Big Sur residents return to normalcy as quickly as possible. “It’s amazing to think, poof, your life is forever changed,” he says. “You can never make it exactly like it was. But you have to help.”
To this end, Clyburn has surveyed homes burned in the blaze, and has been collecting economic data from local businesses in an attempt to determine how much money was lost. Clyburn also worked with the county’s various land-use departments to streamline the permitting process for rebuilding in Big Sur. On July 23, he met with state OES, FEMA and U.S. Small Business Administration officials, visiting every site known to be damaged or destroyed, and now he hopes for a federal disaster declaration.
If the president declares a disaster, FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program can provide financial assistance to help homeowners and renters affected by the fire. Victims may use the money to rent a different place, repair damage caused by the fire or replace a destroyed home or other property. “Basically, full FEMA assistance is what we’re looking for,” Clyburn says.
But even full FEMA assistance isn’t a pot of gold. “It’s a common misconception that when a disaster strikes, there is going to be a flood of money,” Clyburn says. In reality, through the Individuals and Households Program, an individual can receive a maximum of $38,000 ($28,000 from FEMA and $10,000 through a state supplemental grant).
A disaster declaration would also allow the Small Business Administration to make low-interest loans available to homeowners, renters, businesses and nonprofits to repair or replace property, machinery, inventory and business assets damaged or destroyed in the fire. Meanwhile, Big Sur businesses must rely on help from insurance companies, locals and tourists.
“None of the businesses were damaged directly,” Gafill says, “but some did have damage to their water systems, landscaping, lost trees. For the most part, the business community was largely unscathed from a physical standpoint. The economic damage is what impacts businesses the most. This is peak season; anybody whose business is dependent on guests is going to take some huge hits– and that’s almost everyone in Big Sur.”
Restaurants, hotels, galleries and shops lost money when Highway 1 closed from June 21 to July 13. Hotel rooms, dining tables and campsites went empty. Food spoiled, smoke ruined hotel bedding and restaurant linens, flames melted water pipes, dozers mowed down trees and campsites. Employees– many of whom depend on tips and seasonal work– were temporarily jobless.
“WE NEED FIRE. FIRE IS AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE BALANCE.”
Gafill estimates Nepenthe alone took a $600,000 hit.
Over at River Inn, which was closed for 10 days, general manager Janet Lesniak says she has yet to add up losses. “It’s been too painful,” she says. “But as you can imagine, the Fourth of July weekend is a significant portion of our income.” Plus, she says, when Big Sur reopened, she and her staff returned to find everything covered in ash, and a houseful of rotten food because of a five-day power outage. “But we are very fortunate being in this little valley,” she says. “Physically, you don’t see a lot of damage. It looks spectacularly green. The river is flowing. You could be here and deceive yourself into thinking nothing has happened.”
Ventana Inn & Spa felt the heat from the flames– and will be among the last to reopen. Its Cielo restaurant opened for lunch on July 19, and dinner on July 20; the inn won’t reopen for business until Aug. 22. The blaze burned through the upper third of the campground, says general manager Jonathan Farrington. After evacuating the inn, Farrington worked out of the command post, serving as a community liaison between the incident command post and locals. In addition to the campground, fire damaged the watershed and burned redwoods, and dozers cut sections of the property that will need to be repaired. “There’s a lot of smoke-remediation work that needs to be done to the guest rooms,” Farrington says, “replacing beds, mattresses, down comforters, pillows, making sure the rooms smell fresh and clean again.”
Farrington says he doesn’t know much money the fire cost Ventana. “The losses are definitely significant, but we really don’t have an estimate. From a hotel standpoint, guestrooms are a perishable product. You can’t sell yesterday’s guestrooms.”
Esalen lost upwards of $1 million over the three-week period, says President and CEO Gordon Wheeler. He and 51 other Esalen employees didn’t evacuate. Instead, they remained on the property and organized into first-responder teams, cutting brush, gelling buildings and eventually fighting the blaze alongside firefighters.
“On the main campus here, we prepared and prepared as the fire came down the canyon and ultimately engulfed our water tanks,” Wheeler says. “We gelled the tanks, and set sprinklers, and the firemen were here to help fight it. We pulled our own crew out just ahead of the flames. Our tanks survived, but not so the water lines.”
“PHYSICALLY, YOU DON’T SEE A LOT OF DAMAGE… YOU COULD BE HERE AND DECEIVE YOURSELF INTO THINKING NOTHING HAS HAPPENED.”
Once Highway 1 reopened, the same 52 people spent the following week scrubbing down the property, steam cleaning and power hosing inside and out. Esalen reopened on July 18. “And we are packed,” Wheeler says. “We are sold out.”
Like most, Wheeler takes a typically Big Sur attitude toward rebuilding the community.
“This is Big Sur,” he says. “People come here because we’re on the edge. You feel more alive. The environment challenges you and wakes you up, and this is part of the price you pay.”
Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant co-owner and realtor Mike Gilson continued cooking pizzas for residents and firefighters after his rented house burned down. Gilson also sits on the CPOA board and is president of the association’s workforce housing subcommittee. He and other board members submitted recommendations to Monterey County planners to make it easier for Big Sur residents to rebuild homes and water systems. Many of these suggestions were incorporated into the supervisors’ recovery guidelines.
Gilson sits at a table in the bakery on July 21. The restaurant isn’t yet serving food, but the bakery sells pastries and coffee (BSB returned to serving its full menu soon thereafter). Tourists– some from Northern California, others from France and England– sit on the deck and watch a helicopter dump water on a hotspot that has flared up in the hills on the other side of Highway 1. Gilson flips through pictures on his camera phone that show the remains of his home.
“This is the bedroom, that was the bed,” he says, pointing to charred remains of a box spring. “Everything is gone.” A tile shower and stone fireplace rise above the black rubble.
Before returning to his burned-out home on Newell Ranch, Gilson says, he decided to perform a fire ceremony, an ancient ritual to make peace with the fire. “The ceremony itself requires you to come to a point of gratefulness for being alive in that moment,” he says.
Gilson describes the ceremony. He says he lit a fire in the still-standing fireplace. “You express gratefulness for the natural world in all of its forms. You blow what you want to release into a stick, and you put it in the fire. I released the emotional trauma and pain of those closest to me. It helped me to recognize I was lucky to be alive.”