As flames from the growing Basin Complex Fire stole down canyons toward their 55-acre ranch on Big Sur’s Apple Pie Ridge, the Curtis family did what they had always done when a wildfire threatened their homestead: They stayed put and fought it.
Micah Curtis, a metal sculptor, says his family and a group of volunteers had saved the family ranch twice in the past when out-of-control wildfires roared their way. In 1972, Micah and relatives stopped the encroaching Molera Fire with shovels and garden hoses; some family members had to hop into the ranch pool to escape the boiling heat.
But as the Basin Complex Fire, which Micah’s son Tyson described as sounding and looking like a giant avalanche, roared toward their family homes, the Curtis family and a group of friends decided to use a more radical technique to divert the blaze. The Big Sur residents lit a backfire, a fire set on the perimeter of a wildfire to consume the fuel in the primary fire’s path and change its course.
The Curtis family says they lit the backfire after realizing that firefighters wouldn’t be assisting them in battling the blaze that had jumped onto their property. “I don’t expect them to come, ’cause they designated our area too dangerous,” Micah says. “I just don’t want to be impeded in our efforts trying to save our place.”
Although the backfire saved the homestead, the incident resulted in the Big Sur residents drawing what they say is unwarranted heat from law enforcement officials. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) officials and Monterey County sheriff’s deputies visited the Curtis family and friends on the evening of July 2. Officers told the Big Sur residents to stop lighting backfires. Tyson and his friend, Kodiak Greenwood, also contend deputies tried to intimidate them by asking for their dental records– for identification purposes, in case the rogue firefighters died while battling the blaze.
Monterey County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Jerry Teeter says it’s possible the subject of dental records came up “in the context of telling someone about the risk.”
While the Curtis family maintains they never lit another backfire after being reprimanded, Cal Fire officials allege the Big Sur residents set another one the following day. Tyson says they diverted one tendril of fire back into the main blaze in an attempt to slow it down.
A Cal Fire official accompanied by sheriff’s deputies returned to Apple Pie Ridge on July 4. Greenwood says the officers drew guns on him and told him to lie on the ground, where they handcuffed him. He also says that the officers confiscated his friend Chris Mazurek’s fire-protection gear and told him to stop impersonating a firefighter. “They basically took away his protection from the fire,” Greenwood says.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Paul Van Gerwen, who wasn’t at the scene on July 4, would not comment on Greenwood’s charges. “I can’t speak to that,” he says. “I don’t know what confrontations occurred.”
Teeter disputes Greenwood’s account. “It didn’t get intense at all, so that is not an accurate report,” he says.
Greenwood and Mazurek were released, but law enforcement officials arrested Micah’s brother, Ross Curtis, charging him with refusing the lawful order of a firefighter and setting a backfire without permission or supervision. Cal Fire Battalion Chief Paul Van Gerwen says the misdemeanor could result in a maximum of one year in county jail and a fine of up to $10,000.
Van Gerwen admits “the legal right to defend your home exists.” California Public Resources Code 4426 states it is illegal to start a backfire without permission or direct supervision unless “setting of such backfire was necessary for the purpose of saving life or valuable property.”
Still, Van Gerwen maintains that the Curtis family went about protecting their property in an unlawful way and says there was “no immediate threat to the structure.
“It was very ill advised,” he says. “There was no permission. It was a distraction to suppressors on the incident.”
In addition, Van Gerwen says Cal Fire and the sheriff’s department were looking out for the well-being of the Big Sur residents. “Our priorities are life safety, protection of property and natural resources,” he says. “That’s in order.”
Micah, a former member of the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade who has been certified in a structure-protection class, says law enforcement officials are trying to paint him as an “idiot” with no experience fighting fires. Micah also says the size of the fire he set to save his homestead is being blown out of proportion. “We never lit a fire that was more than 10 feet from the fire that was already there.”
Since the incident, Micah says, a handful of firefighters have visited his property and been impressed with how the Big Sur residents fought the blaze. “All the mid-sized guys say, ‘You pulled this off,’ ” he says. “ ‘This is amazing.’ ”
Still, residents, including Micah Curtis, say it seemed like Big Sur was under martial law during the mandatory evacuation. “We can’t help each other on our own ridges,” he says. “We can’t get any help from our neighbors.”
Kirk Gafill, general manager of Nepenthe Restaurant and president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, says he also was frustrated by the limits put on the residents by the sheriff’s department. He says closing Highway 1 to vehicular traffic and then pedestrian traffic made it a struggle for Big Sur residents to assist any of their neighbors.
Nepenthe’s refrigerators were fully stocked for the July 4 holiday weekend. But there was no way to get the perishables to residents who needed food. Gafill says it was heartbreaking to watch food go bad knowing others nearby needed the supplies. “Every time we threw food away,” he says, “it was like getting punched in the stomach.”