Matthew Miller was hiking in Garrapata State Park on the morning of July 22, the day the Soberanes Fire started. The fire stretched about 50 feet wide when he first laid eyes on it, he says. But he never thought it would grow into the nearly 70,000-acre beast it is today.
After spotting the fire, Miller ran down the trail to report it. Once he reached Highway 1, law enforcement officers were already there and the two women, who Miller says called 911 from a cell phone at the top of the mountain, came down from the trail to the road. Three other people with camping gear were also there, Miller recalls.
“But no one questioned me,” he says. “[Law enforcement officers] didn’t question anyone.”
Eric Abma, acting superintendent of State Parks’ Monterey district, says there were no park rangers guarding Garrapata State Park that morning, even though some of the seven park rangers tasked with guarding trails and parks along the 62-mile Big Sur perimeter were on duty.
Park Ranger Phil Bergman told the Weekly in June that State Parks resources are stretched thin, leaving officers usually assigned to the parks with the highest attendance, like Julia Pfeiffer Burns, where hikers have died after accessing steep trails that are closed to the public. That park is nearly an hour’s drive from Garrapata.
Theo Maehr, a Palo Colorado resident, says he sees campers along Highway 1 and in closed-off areas on a weekly basis. It’s a situation he describes as “out of control.”
“State Parks needs more enforcement,” Maehr says. “If they cannot patrol and protect the parks and trails adequately, the parks need to be closed.”
On Aug. 2, Cal Fire officials announced that the blaze, which in three weeks has destroyed at least 57 homes, was ignited by an illegal campfire in an area closed to hikers. In Garrapata State Park, there are no fires or camping allowed.
“What’s to stop people from having a campfire or a barbecue and walking up some trail and setting up a camp?” Maehr says.
A few weeks prior to the Soberanes Fire, he’d been mulling whether to start a neighborhood watch group to keep an eye on popular trails along Palo Colorado Road, from Highway 1 to Bottchers Gap. The wildfire intensified his interest in pursuing the effort, which is now officially in the works. He sees the fire as proof that State Parks is not up to the task.
“It’s become clear that it is our community that has to respond to protect the area,” he says.
Maehr is spearheading the neighborhood watch effort, which would have neighbors take turns driving up Palo Colorado Road starting at 10pm, when campers are usually done setting up for the night. If members encounter people camping or starting campfires, they would call law enforcement. The nascent group so far has four members, including Maehr.
“If State Parks rangers started writing pricy tickets for people breaking rules, things might start to change,” Maehr says. “If [California Highway Patrol officers] started ticketing people for driving too slowly, passing illegally and for doing foolish things on the highway, things might change.”