After the Fire

Two years after a devastating wildfire, a remote California community learns how to cope, mourn, and care for one another.

The Soberanes Fire burned to within feet of the Eichorn family’s kitchen window. Their home was narrowly saved from the fire, which would continue to burn for over two more months after the Eichorn’s close call. (Courtesy of Jack Willis, 2016)

At age 33, Ben Eichorn was ready to propose to his girlfriend. He had the ring. He had prepared a romantic backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a getaway from San Francisco and an homage, in part, to his own rugged upbringing.

He had no inkling that another mountain range would soon call him away.

In the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains on the northern cusp of Big Sur, where tourists zoomed by in awe of central California’s ocean vistas, a fire was quietly seething. Born from an illegal campfire, the modest blaze had rested quietly, perhaps overnight, smoldering amid the chaparral. By the morning of July 22, 2016, it had consumed the surrounding scrub, which was leafy from that winter’s rain but still brittle underneath from years of severe drought.

The fire was not a reason for alarm, at the time; it was common for small fires to break out in the woods and hills that so tempted inexperienced and illegal campers. And the people who live there aren’t easily fazed by nature’s tantrums. Melissa Lofton, a 35-year resident of the Eichorn’s neighborhood, says that people who live there have learned to “accept living here with horrible winters, horrible roads, horrible fires.” Since the Eichorn family’s home was still several miles away from the fire front, it wasn’t an urgent concern yet.

This fire, however, grew with ferocious gusto. By nightfall, Ben’s parents, Peter and Janie Eichorn, had received a mandatory evacuation alert. Janie evacuated with the most important documents and their puppy. 72-year-old Peter Eichorn ignored the order. He decided to stay and defend their home.

Ben hardly slept that night. The next morning, Ben had a voicemail from his father that convinced him to make the two-hour drive south immediately. The fire had advanced much closer to the Eichorn’s home. “I could tell that he was — not panicked, but I could sense fear in his voice. I had never sensed fear in my father’s voice. At that time I knew that it was time to go,” he said. Ben left San Francisco without telling Anastasia, who was in a yoga class at the time. While speeding down the freeway, he called both her and his mother to let them know that he had decided to go to his father.

The Eichorns live off Palo Colorado Canyon Road, a narrow artery that twists away from the iconic Highway One coastline and past cottages peeping out from beneath the dim ceiling of redwood limbs. The road suddenly jerks up out of the forest and into the sunlight of the rugged Santa Lucia foothills, where it comes to the only section wide enough for a car to turn around: the fire station (completed in 2003). Beyond that, where the road is too steep and uneven for most cars to safely pass, live the Eichorns. Emergency services had already closed off the single entrance to the road by the time Ben arrived, blocking anyone from driving up. Undeterred, he hiked directly up from the highway into the steep coastal hills for several hours, through the scrub and oaks, until he reached the property he had been raised on. He was there to help his father defend their home.

The Soberanes Fire burned for almost three months, and devastated the small, tightly interwoven community of Palo Colorado Canyon. At the time, it was the costliest US wildfire ever fought. It stripped the Big Sur hillsides naked, and when the rains came the following winter, areas that had survived the fire were destroyed by mudslides. Tourism dried up as the famous Pacific Coast Highway was partitioned by two especially violent mudslides, creating a long middle section of Big Sur (known locally as “the island”) that was cut off from the highway to both the north and south.

The Soberanes fire burned for 83 days before it was finally extinguished inside Los Padres National Forest on October 12, 2016.

But in the following two years, other disasters soon overpowered the Soberanes Fire’s faint blip on the national and statewide radars. 2017 brought the Napa and Sonoma County fires that killed 44 people and destroyed 8000 homes, followed by the record-setting Thomas Fire and a host of other Southern California fires and related mudslides. Beyond California, other natural disasters like the trio of devastating Caribbean and Gulf Coast hurricanes, or the flooding and landslides that affected millions in South Asia, made even the most severe Californian fires seem manageable in comparison.

The Soberanes fire burned at the confluence of a changing climate, a tangle of regulatory responsibility, and a community bonded deeply to their land and to one another. The struggles and successes of the people of Palo Colorado Canyon, from the moment the fire started through today, underscore the strength found in community — and the challenges that lie ahead as communities across the US rethink fire preparedness in the context of a changing climate.

When Palo Colorado resident Mike C. heard that a wildfire had ignited five miles from his home, he figured he’d have two or three days before it reached his property. He had been building his dream home since 1983, gradually constructing it over more than three decades. Because the property was under perpetual construction, he had no homeowners insurance.

As he watched water bombers drop flame retardant loads, he worked through the day and night covering vents on the roof, moving flammable items away from the house, and bringing outdoor items that he wanted to protect inside. By the time he watched the flames crest over the nearest ridge, the igniter on his old Toyota pickup truck had died. He applied flame retardant gel to his home and continued working.

“When I heard the fire — it’s unbelievable, the explosions. I think it was probably steam, and big oak trees blowing up,” he said. His voice is slow, and his pale eyes seem focused on a sight far away. “Seeing how it was burning coming downhill, and how fast it was burning, I started wondering if maybe I made a mistake staying there.”

C. moved inside the house once he saw brush on his own property starting to catch fire. He waited inside with a 5-gallon backpack of water, the kind used to spray pesticides in a garden, and hosed down sparks as they flew in through the cracks around the doors.

“I remember at one point thinking, ‘Wow, this can work. I can save the house.’” He was still battling the sparks flying in through the doorway when he turned and saw flames blossoming just on the other side of his sliding glass door. “I had left one of those plastic Rubbermaid boxes sitting next to the house, and inside of it was a bunch of rope which was made out of polypropylene. And what I found out was, that’s like Napalm. Once it gets going, you cannot put it out, and certainly not with a little five-gallon backpack on your back.”

Having emptied the contents of his backpack onto the enflamed rope, he ran back towards the house to get more water, only to find that the heat had melted his fire hose. As he dashed back outside, he saw light coming from within another portion of the house. “I went inside the house, where we had plumbing supplies stored, paper and all kinds of stuff, that were already on fire. The fire was already going up the inside and across the ceiling. And there was absolutely nothing I could do.”

C. couldn’t bear to watch his home of 35 years burn to the ground. He sat down behind a large oak tree to shield himself from the heat, and waited. He hadn’t slept for two days. He staggered uphill to an area that he’d recently cleared for several new 3000-gallon plastic water tanks. The tanks had been destroyed, but the area was free of scrub. He curled up on the ground amid the melted plastic, and fell asleep of exhaustion.

The Eichorn home may have fared the same if it weren’t for a combination of dozens of factors, colloquially known as luck. The most important was a pair of young local brothers who labored through the night clearing the road to the Eichorns so CalFire could pass through. Without fire truck access to the property, the home would undoubtedly have burned. But even with CalFire there, the house barely made it, with the fire burning up the hill below to within feet of the house while CalFire personnel blasted it from the Eichorns’ roof.

Even for those whose homes the fire spared, the impact was devastating. Cheryl and Jake Goetz are both seasoned firefighters of several decades who have lived in Palo Colorado Canyon for twenty years. Cheryl is the fire chief of the all-volunteer Mid Coast Fire Brigade, and has fought hundreds, possibly thousands, of fires over the course of her career. Yet this depth of experience did not prepare her emotionally to battle a fire threatening her own neighborhood.

Cheryl Goetz has been Chief of the volunteer Mid Coast Fire Brigade for eighteen years. She is pictured here in January 2018 at the fire station she pushed the community to build in 2003. Two years after the Soberanes fire, she is still active in recovery work within the Palo Colorado Canyon community.

“This time, it was personal,” she said. Her soft voice belies her toughness, and she skims over the fact that she nearly lost her home while fighting to keep the fire away from her neighbors. “And this time, it was watching people that you know lose their homes, and knowing that they’d lost everything, that they were more than likely never going to be able to rebuild — that our community was going to be changed for a long, long time to come.”

Everyone in Palo Colorado Canyon had endured natural disasters before. They are accustomed to being forgotten by the county, to dirt roads washing out, to waiting several weeks to regain electricity in their homes, to leaning on their neighbors for help in times of need. Life in the canyon weeds out those who do not wholeheartedly embrace these inherent challenges of living close to nature.

Yet even beyond Palo Colorado Canyon, Americans are increasingly living in similarly isolated areas along the dividing boundary between wilderness and development. This designation, called the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI), now applies to a third of all residences in the U.S., according to one US Forest Service study from 2015.

Another study, published in the journal Ecological Applications in 2005, ranks California as the state with the most houses in the WUI. The authors note that although New England beats California by percentage of homes in the WUI, the fire risk is still much greater with California’s dry scrub and chaparral, adding “The WUI is where wildland fires destroy the most structures when fuels and weather are conducive to fire.” Cheryl Goetz describes the environment around her home as “natural chaparral that was built to burn. This is where people live, in an area that is designed and built to burn by all nature.”

The WUI presents a catch 22 for fire hazard management. Most people don’t like fires in their backyards, even controlled ones, and uncontrolled fires near residences are the first to be stamped out. Yet stifling natural wildfires has often allowed the areas closest to these homes to go unburnt for decades, creating a natural tinderbox in the same areas we most want to protect from fire.

A changing climate adds even more complexity to attempts to predict and control wildfires. When California’s five-year drought was punctuated by an exceptionally wet winter in 2016, the coastal flora soaked in the rain, growing new foliage and carpeting the hills with a fresh layer of kindling. Many climate models for California predict that the conditions that caused that extreme dryness will become more common in the future: frequent and intense droughts punctuated by exceptionally wet years.

Worsening wildfires are also a possible consequence of a changing climate. Norm Cotton, a volunteer firefighter in Palo Colorado Canyon for forty years, noticed the effect of the extra fuel load on the fire at once.

“Everything had been extra dry, even in the wintertime,” he said. “Things were not responding the way they usually do. I mean at night, fires usually lay down. The fires were not laying down at night because of the extreme dryness in the vegetation. So at night the wind came up, and the fire just took off.”

Norm Cotton stands in front of his home in January 2018. He is a captain with the volunteer Mid Coast Fire Brigade, and the last original member of the brigade still active.

Analyzing the past is far easier than divining the future, and the recent past of wildfires in California is troubling. Over the last several decades, the average fire season length in the west increased by 78 days. At the same time, the average time a fire burned before containment increased over 500%, from 7.5 to 37.1 days.

Cheryl Goetz has also noticed with alarm the long-term trend of escalating intensity and frequency of wildfires in California. She is as blunt as she is serious in her prognosis of how a changing climate and destructive fires are affecting California, saying, “It is the new normal. The Soberanes fire, and so many of the fires, we used to call them career fires. You could work thirty years, and you may never see a fire burn to the magnitude we’ve seen fires within the last ten years burning. I don’t think that the fire service has adapted — I don’t even know if they’re capable adapting — to the new normal.”

The Soberanes Fire is one example of what Californians can expect from this new normal climactic pattern. The residents of Palo Colorado Canyon — the potheads, libertarians, handymen, millionaires, pragmatists, and dreamers — seemed to not share a single common opinion, except this one: that it is folly to think that more fires won’t come.

While the fire still raged, the Coast Property Owners Association president Butch Kronlund called a public meeting for the impacted residents. Over fifty people filed in, many from the Palo Colorado Canyon community. Donations for the fire victims were pouring in to the CPOA, and Kronlund was organizing to distribute the money. Although the fire officially destroyed 57 homes, Kronlund estimates that the true total was twice as high when accounting for the unpermitted and illegal homes that were common in Palo Colorado Canyon.

Kronlund surveyed the room. A tall man with cropped grey hair and bright blue eyes, the longtime Big Sur resident had witnessed fires close to his home as well. He took stock of who was freshly homeless, who was still waiting on news about their homes, who was alone and who was with their partner or family. He also noticed two sheriffs standing towards the back of the crowd. He introduced himself to the crowd, then addressed the elephant in the room. “We love our sheriffs, they’re great guys, right? I really want them around if a gunfight breaks out. But I gotta tell you right now, these guys will never see what’s on these forms.” He was talking about the paperwork they had asked people to fill, detailing their losses from the fire. “And that made the sheriff pissed off, but it got everybody else laughing.”

Routing aid to homes that had never officially existed was one of many points of tension between community members and varying levels of government. During the fire, Cheryl Goetz refused to follow CalFire’s snail-paced communication policy for informing people about the status of their homes. Instead, she personally reached out to families after their home had burned, and spoke with them one on one.

“What the fire service loses in general with notifying the community is that they see it as a building. Everybody here sees it as a part of themselves,” she said. “So how do you tell them that they’re not going to get notified for two weeks? That’s where I said no…this is our neighborhood, and so we’re going to let everybody know.” If she caught wind of the media airing coverage of a destroyed home, she’d put any non-urgent duties on hold, and if it was safe, she would bring the owner up to see their home for themselves, before they could see it on the TV. “Cal Fire was not happy about that, but we didn’t care.”

The Soberanes Fire was inevitable, in a sense — the ante that all communities who live so entwined with nature pay in a gamble that they will lose, sooner or later. The last two years have shown California exactly how immense the toll from wildfires can reach, and it’s not confined to small, back-in-the-hills neighborhoods like Palo Colorado Canyon.

A reckless and illegal campfire is the simplest answer for why the Soberanes Fire happened. The less simple answer is a hundredfold, depending on who you ask: because the government does too much, because the government doesn’t do enough, because stamping out small wildfires has allowed for megafires to flourish, because of drought and a changing climate, because the communities it terrorized were unprepared and inaccessible to emergency vehicles, because maintaining adequate fire clearance is too expensive for anyone but the very wealthy. The list goes on, and opinions about solutions are just as varied.

Mike C.’s personal crusade is changing policies that he believes prioritize conservation over fire preparation. Fire can quickly spread from private to state to federal lands and can face different sets of regulations in each zone. The Palo Colorado Canyon community rests within miles of Los Padres National Forest, where the National Forest Service is in control. C. holds laws and regulations from the Endangered Species Act to the California Environmental Quality Act responsible for hindering fire protection measures in the national forest until a blaze is already underway.

Ben Eichorn is more frustrated by the high price tag and time investment required to keep the area around a home clear of scrub and brush. While preparing land for wildfire is part and parcel of the of living in Palo Colorado Canyon, keeping a realistically defensible space of at least a hundred feet around a home is hard even for the most dedicated homeowners. Ben sympathizes with his neighbors who didn’t have enough cleared space, or those who thought they did and were proved wrong when the fire came through. “It’s prohibitively expensive. And most of the people live up here because it’s a little more affordable than Carmel,” he explains. “Up here, you could maybe get five acres and build a little cabin…[that’s what] they’ve got. Just enough to live, to build their home and have their work in town and gas to put in the tank.”

Sixteen months after the fire, he was especially troubled to see some new homes spring up without an eye for future fire safety. “People are just rebuilding little tinderbox wooden cabins along the same edge that burned, pretty much in the same style and structure.” He shakes his head. “It’s cheaper, it’s faster, but it’s a matter of when, not if, it will burn again.”

When I meet Norm Cotton in his home, the morning drizzle has stopped, and in its place the afternoon sun throws rainbows fiercely through the water droplets quivering along the garden fencing. The ocean view is mostly obscured by the thick redwood forest that conveniently doubles as his shower curtain for the little shower overhanging the steep hill on the house’s north side.

Norm has a long face with gently creased cheeks. He has lived in Palo Colorado Canyon for over forty years, and is the last active founding member of the original Mid Coast Fire Brigade volunteers. Even a year and a half after the fire began, there was still a heap of twisted metal and scraps on the roadside by his house — the skeletons of homes that he helped his neighbors haul away. The Coast Property Owners Association used some of the relief donations to pay Norm for removing the debris.“I would have done it without pay anyways,” he said, “because these are my neighbors and friends…People pull together, sort of like family in a sense.” He admitted that it was a much larger job than he originally expected, and was glad for the payment.

Recovery since the fire has been, and continues to be, a long and ongoing process. Upper Rocky Creek Road, an offshoot from the main Palo Colorado Canyon Road, is still washed out from the winter mudslides that followed the fire. Only a handful of homes are beyond the destroyed section, and the county has claimed no responsibility to repair it. Sixteen of the homes that burned lie beyond this stretch of road, and the barely-passable road has prevented the homeowners from rebuilding well over a year after the fact. With an estimated price tag of $600,000 and no county or state support to repair the destroyed section, they’re still waiting on enough donations to safely drive to and from their homes again. So far, help has not been forthcoming.

Despite these challenges, normalcy has returned for some residents who lost their homes, like artist Melissa Lofton. She has rebuilt a fourteen by eighteen foot home that she describes as a “little jewel box”, with a tiny bathhouse, a deck, and a garden. She is ecstatic to be back on her land, and never doubted that she would rebuild even after losing everything to the fire. “Many of my neighbors are back on their land,” she said, “showing the characteristic spirit of the people in this community. This is our home and we are willing to do whatever it takes to live here.”

Ben Eichorn recalls the Soberanes fire with fear and respect, but also with a measure of gratitude. It illuminated what mattered to him most: his family and his fiancé-to-be, Anastasia. Watching the wildfire approach, he resolved to “accept defeat and be willing to lose everything, because what I really wanted was a life with her.” After a day and night of helping defend the home, and finally convincing his father to evacuate, he was reunited with his family and Anastasia. Despite the fire derailing his backpacking trip, one aspect of the proposal went according to plan after all: he proposed to her on the beach in Santa Cruz two days later, on the exact date he had originally intended.

A year later, almost to the day, Ben stood behind his family’s home in full glare of the inland summer sun. He glanced down over the rugged hillsides, above the redwoods, across the highway, and out at the sea, a reversal of the path he had trekked a year earlier to join his father’s fight for their home. That spring, the naked, rain-battered hillsides had erupted in California poppies, an unprecedented riot according to Janie Eichorn. It was a beautiful day for a wedding, and among hills that were already growing over their burn scars, it was hard to imagine that the land had so recently burst aflame.

But it was a hot, dry day, and it was less difficult to imagine that it would burn again.