Big Sur community surviving and thriving

By Max Jerome

Earth, wind, fire, and water are no strangers to Big Sur, and this past year the forces of Mother Nature have had their way on the majestic coastline.

More than 130,000 acres of rugged terrain were torched in the summer by a wildfire that lasted almost three months, destroyed 57 homes and essentially cut off Big Sur from visitors and left many homeless.

At the peak of the fire, more than 5,000 firefighters were working shifts and camping in Monterey County to contain the blaze that was started by an illegal campfire near Soberanes Point. At least $262 million was spent in the effort, making it the most expensive firefight to ever take place on U.S. soil, said Robin Nimura, the finance section chief for the United States Forest Service.

Flames at Soberanes. Photo Credit: DMT Imaging.

The fire was just the beginning. Before the exhausted Big Sur locals could catch their breath and just after they put their bulldozers away, the rains started.

The abnormally high rainfall wasn’t stopping anytime soon, over 90 inches of rain fell in the following months. The dry, drought-ridden soil and the scorched, ashen hillsides were not ready for this much moisture. Small rivers of rainwater started flowing into cracks of the land causing massive mudslides. Mudslides that had no regard for anything in its way. These mudslides were all over Big Sur, not just on residents’ property but also on Highway One, closing the scenic highway in various stretches. The scarred and dead terrain from the fire were all elements of these mudslides.

The Big Sur River rose well over flood stage and many buildings close to the river were halfway underwater, forcing residents to evacuate to higher land. The river rerouted at Andrew Molera State Park and flowed through the parking lot and campground.

Big Sur River floods Andrew Molera State Park. Photo Credit: Max Jerome.

Big Sur locals along with representatives of state agencies were in a frenzy as they posed such questions as: What areas of the highway are most important? How can we prepare for more rain? Is the river dammed up anywhere? While these questions are being asked and a plan is being made, the land continued to slide.

On Feb. 16, a week after a severe storm with winds measured at more than 80 mph howling through Big Sur, officials closed a vital bridge in the Big Sur area — the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge — due to cracks in the bridge’s supporting pillars that were stressed by land moving beneath. The bridge was starting to become unstable and was deemed by CalTrans to be unsafe for motorists and even pedestrians. CalTrans decided the bridge had to be demolished and would be closed six months to a year. This separated families from first-world necessities like grocery stores, schools and hospitals.

Caltrans crews demolish Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. Photo Credit: DMT Imaging.

Cyclone force winds ripped through the Big Sur Valley on Feb. 17 with wind gusts reported up to 87 mph by the National Weather Service. Trees were ripped in half and boulders were blown onto Highway One. Big Sur was in a disaster state created by Mother Nature.

Famous tourist draws at Nepenthe, Ventana Inn and Post Ranch Inn were cut off from the north by the bridge closure and by closures of Highway 1 and Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to the south as rockslides needed to be cleaned up by CalTrans.

This is when the sense of community thrives in Big Sur. A natural disaster takes away the petty property battles and builds bridges between neighbors looking out for one another along with their precious land. The cell phone service is very minimal on the Big Sur Coast so neighbors stay in touch via 2-way radios or scanners in emergency situations. The locals without radios and the rest of Monterey County rely on a blog called BigSurKate.

The blog got voted best blog in Monterey County by the Monterey Weekly poll and is run by a retired attorney named Kate Woods Novoa. She has lived in Big Sur since 1985 and started blogging in 2008 during the 162,818-acre Basin Fire. This built a relationship between Kate and the Big Sur community.

BigSurKate’s selfie.

Nine years later, Kate still updates the blog almost daily. The goal is to keep the community active, involved, willing to work together, and most importantly to make sure the community stays informed. Big Sur Kate writes on her blog that she feels “a great responsibility towards this blog, and my part in helping to keep us all informed about issues that affect Big Sur, particularly

on fires and road conditions.”

El Yanqui asked Big Sur Kate why she cared about the Big Sur community so much. “Why do I need to breathe? It’s my life,” she said.

When she moved to Big Sur she felt like it was home, a feeling she had never felt before in her life. “My community is unique. It is loving, giving, and a big village of family,” she says. “We fight, we make up, and we help one another.”

The blog is always up to date on information. Kate tells El Yanqui, “Most of my information comes from public agencies, but eyewitness accounts are much of the information I post during things like the Soberanes Fire, if they are accompanied by photographs. I have come to know which of my community are alarmists and which are factual. If I have any doubt, I confirm with other sources.”

Big Sur Kate encourages everyone to share to her blog and to look out for one another to make sure the information is as accurate as possible. So, Big Sur Kate relies on the community and the community relies on Big Sur Kate. Both sides benefit greatly and it goes back to helping one another.

The chain of communication has always been solid in Big Sur between the locals but Big Sur Kate is the voice getting the information out to the community. Before internet, the Big Sur community relied on faxes, phone calls, radios, and scanners.

Martha Karstens, Chief of the Big Sur Fire Brigade and Big Sur local since 1971, says “We made due before the Internet, attending incident command meetings and then having community meetings at the Multi Agency Facility where locals could come out and get updated or ask any questions they had about current emergencies.”

Chief Martha Karstens. Photo Credit: Max Jerome.

Big Sur Kate’s blog has made that information more easily accessible and Chief Karstens says it’s the “go to place for information for the community and it is a great service Kate is providing.”

Chief Karstens is no stranger to road closures or hazardous conditions in the area. “It’s like shaking off the cobwebs, remembering how to deal with issues like getting medication, food and mail to the closed area.”

The Pfeiffer Canyon bridge closure is different, however, the other closures weren’t as long term as six months to a year.

A trail that goes around the closure was built by local volunteers, state park employees, and Big Sur Fire Brigade members. The trail which takes about 30 minutes to hike is the only way for kids to get to school, residents to get groceries, and employees to get to work. The trail is currently only open to locals but becoming open to the public is bound to happen.

Businesses are dying and employees are laid off, and with Post Ranch Inn, Nepenthe, and the Coast Gallery opening, public access is just a matter of time. The Big Sur Fire Brigade and the State Parks have been discussing opening the trail to the public and the hazards it will entail, said Chief Karstens.

Big Sur Kate posted on her blog how to sign up to volunteer to build the trail and kept the community updated on bridge demolition and the start of reconstruction. The community response was tremendous as an estimated five-week project took little more than two weeks as volunteers cleared brush and made trails accessible.

Business owners rely on Kate’s blog as well. Don and Mieke McQueen, owners of Big Sur Campground and Cabins have 121 combined years living in Big Sur. Don provided bulldozers to the United States Forest Service from 1948 to 1987 to help fight fires and create fire breaks. Keeping the campground guests updated has been crucial with all the hectic weather and uncertainty of Highway One.

Mieke says BigSurKate is a “great source of multiple layers of information, she does an incredible job at consolidating various sources. She provides facts and great pictures. Big Sur Kate helps makes serving guests quick, easy, and informative. I have friends in Singapore who kept up on Big Sur conditions through the blog.”

Overpopulation in Big Sur has been a growing problem. The rugged coastline and mind blowing ocean vistas bring in millions of visitors per year.

Big Sur Kate is an activist for this issue. Kate stated, “The idea of making Highway One a toll road has been floated since at least 1985. It was not a popular idea back then. It is gaining in popularity as the number of visitors has increased exponentially. Our coast is getting destroyed by the number of visitors. Most turnouts are now being used as toilets.

“If I could wave a magic wand and change anything about Big Sur, it would be to bring in less, not more visitors, and to make all the visitors who do come aware of not just its beauty but its fragile nature.

“Big Sur needs to find some way to limit the impact. This year, Mama Sur took care of it for us by destroying the bridge at Pfeiffer Gulch and causing serious slides in numerous locations. Eventually, the highway will re-open and we will need to address the growing problem.”