Big Sur Rising: Last Summer's Wildfires Could Have Destroyed the Most Beautiful Coast in the World. Instead, They Brought the Community Together

By Duane, Daniel | Sunset, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Big Sur Rising: Last Summer's Wildfires Could Have Destroyed the Most Beautiful Coast in the World. Instead, They Brought the Community Together


Duane, Daniel, Sunset


"RIGHT AFTER THE FIRE, we talked about it constantly, and it was a relief from always just talking about who was sleeping with whom," Sara Carr says, pouring me a Big Sur Golden Ale in the shaded tavern of Fernwood Resort, on State Highway 1 in the heart of Big Sur.

The fire in question, of course, is the Basin Complex fire, the 162,818-acre blaze that was started by lightning and roared through the Santa Lucia Mountains for most of July, destroying 26 homes. And Carr, the resort's assistant manager, is telling me how she and other Big Sur locals are coping.

The fire obliterated summer tourist season, when Fernwood and all the other businesses make most of their money. Now, Carr says, everybody's fretting about the possibility of an even bigger catastrophe ahead: the mudslides and destructive flooding that may come with the winter rains.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

You wouldn't know any of this, to drive through Big Sur. California oaks and redwoods still grow dense and green along the highway, the inns and restaurants remain as quaint as ever, and the sheer majesty of the landscape--that soul-stirring panorama of gigantic mountains falling off grand sea cliffs to wave-battered beaches--remains utterly unchanged. And sure, you can see burned hillsides if you crane your neck and try, staring away from the sea, but everything about Big Sur draws your attention toward the water, and toward infinity.

Nevertheless, it's different being a local; the same holds true in any paradise. What that means in the Big Sur of today, for the eclectic mix of artists and service workers, struggling waitresses, successful small-business owners, and wealthy recluses--all of whom survived this together--is that frightening reminders lie everywhere.

Confronting the flames

Jayson Fann, an artist and musician who sells garden art and produces cultural events at his Big Sur Spirit Garden, stands beside State 1 and looks inland, recalling how the entire mountainscape, as far as the eye could see, was like a "breathing, melting inferno." Standing one night in this very spot, Fann tells me, "we watched 300-foot flames, entire redwood trees going up like Roman candles--BOOM!--and each time it showered the night sky with embers."

Like a lot of locals, Fann refused a mandatory evacuation order. He packed his entire inventory into U-Hauls and trucked it to Monterey, but came back to clear brush. Others weren't so lucky; Fann tells me about friends who put all their belongings into a metal shipping container next to their Big Sur home, then returned to find the house untouched but the contents of the container reduced to fine ash. …

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