The Last Time Big Sur Burned – The ’72 Molera Fire

The last fire to burn through the Big Sur Valley was the Molera Fire in 1972 (we originally wrote 1974, but Sean Shadwell, who has clearly done less to damage his memory during the ensuing years, reminded us that it was really 1972). Whatever the year, the day itself was certainly memorable.

It was early in the morning and our family was driving south on Highway One. As we drove across Lighthouse Flats, we noticed a little smoke rising at the entrance to the Big Sur Valley. Just as we got into the redwoods, we found some of my dad’s friends putting out a small grass fire in a meadow on the west side of the Highway – an illegal campfire had gotten out of control. They were State Park Rangers. My dad knew them from working as a Naturalist for the State Parks at Pt. Lobos and Pfeiffer Big Sur during the ‘60s.

It looked like the fire was pretty much out, but then suddenly the brush on the east side of the Highway flared up. A USFS fire crew arrived, but the flames were moving fast. The fire beside the road was already too big to drive past, so my dad drove us back a bit out of the way. Dad got out his camera and took some pictures:

The fire was moving up the hill and back into the Big Sur valley quickly

The hardwood forests in front of it just exploded into flame

uh oh…

The first CHP on the scene asked us to move further back. We went back onto Lighthouse Flats and stopped by the entrance to El Sur Ranch. The next car to come along (there wasn’t much traffic in those days) stopped to ask us what was going on. It turned out to be Senator Fred Farr on his way to his property at Big Creek. He pulled over and joined us, but he pulled over blocking the ranch road.

The next person to show up was Jim Hill’s dad. He wasn’t too happy to see his road blocked and leaned on his horn. But then he realized it was his Senator blocking the way and got out and joined our peanut gallery.

Meanwhile, my dad took more pictures:

Fire crews were pouring in from all over – there seemed to be a lot more firefighters in those days. (Click through to the larger photo to check out the two firefighters standing on the back of the truck. They don’t make ’em do that anymore!)

The fire was making a huge run up the hill

It was amazing how quickly the fire reached the top of Mt. Manuel. In certain places it just seemed to flash across large sections of grass and brush – and when it reached trees they just seemed to explode as it ran up on them.

… and there it goes

Senator Farr still wanted to get to Big Creek and after a few hours he was able to convince the CHP to escort us through the fire. As we drove through, fire was burning along the east side of the Highway from Molera past Captain Cooper. At Post’s, I looked back and saw huge flames boiling up from the top of the Mt. Manuel ridge overlooking the gorge. It was only a few hours after the fire started, but it had already moved off into the wilderness.

There was no time for official evacuations, no time to prepare. That very few structures were lost was mainly a matter of luck. The real trouble came the following winter when mudslides destroyed an enormous amount of property. Will that happen again this time?

We’re hoping the fact that this fire burned mainly down the ridge, and with less intensity, will prevent a repeat. But a lot will probably depend on next winter’s weather.

14 Responses to The Last Time Big Sur Burned – The ’72 Molera Fire

  1. Sean Shadwell says:

    Nice post and great pictures! Somehow, I remember the year of the molera fire as being 1972. I could be mistaken though, I was only around five years old at the time.

    Oops! You’re right. Even at age 5 your memory was better than ours – Xasauan Today

  2. alecia morgan says:

    I was there when the mud started down. I watched from hwy 1 by River Inn where the CHP made me stop. My ex and friend ‘Beau’ Bott fought in the ‘Marble Cone’ fire. He has some amazing stories of the fire. My friend Bob Schultz was working in the store when the mud came through it – he jumped from second story to the top of a car to get out and away safely(sort of).

    The article and pictures of the 1972 fire were amazing. You have a talent with words. Thank you for this.

    Alecia Morgan

  3. James Laney says:

    One of the side effects of that fire and the mudslides that followed was that it brought down/opened up piles and piles of rocks, in the area of the Grange building as I recall, perfect for building rock walls, and free for the picking. Jack Overholt and I spent the whole next year building walls all over Big Sur, including Nepenthe and several homes on the road to Pfeiffer Beach.

  4. MJ Curtis-Lamere says:

    Not to put another log on the fire or anything…but theres some poetry here–The Molera fire got loose by, well, lets not go there, the point is, Jack Curtis and his boys, teenagers then,were there when that one took off up the hill. It missed Capt. Cooper thankfully, but in those few short minutes till it reached their place, all people there jumped in the swimming pool and had sheets over their heads for protection, the deck around the pool threatened to catch fire, and mercifully the fire stayed below the pool and went through the orchard below the house and then on to the back country. Dad said the flames over the pool were @200 feet overhead. Only the garage and chicken house were lost. And Micahs ‘new’ jeep! So I guess the moral of this story is that we come by it honest when we review our fire protection plans each year. I sure enjoyed this photo essay and the history. MJ C-L

  5. Cambrian Lou Dubnow says:

    Thank you for the great pictures!!!
    I just met a lady in downtown San Luis Obispo whose grandfather is Dick Hartman, who owned Dick’s Store that was lost in the slide by River Inn. We used to get penny candy there to go down to the Grange Hall and watch movies. The circle gets ever smaller….
    Love to all, be well.

  6. Dale Celaya says:

    I thought I would share my memories of the 1972 Big Sur Fire. I was in the Army stationed at Fort Ord at the time and Fort Ord had been put on alert and there were about ten 5Ton trucks/troop carriers dispatched to the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp to evacuate the Scouts should it become necessary. We arrived late in the evening and it was a real challenge on that narrow road getting up there. The had us dig in for the night and the next morning we walked on down into the camp and the Scout Camp provided us with breakfast in there mess hall and we also stood in formation and had the morning flag raising ceremony with the scouts. For the time being we were on standby so most of the Officers and NCO’s just sat back at the lodge and drank coffee and passed the time of day and were telling war stories to the kids. Most of us younger troops wandered around and took in the camp and some of the guys ended up doing crafts and eating ice cream with the kids and even a few got out on the lake and tried out the canoes. I must admit it was a very enjoyable day had by all. The fire had shifted and had turned away so by late afternoon the camp was considered to be in no further danger and we were called back to Fort Ord.
    Now for the funny part of this story. When we got back to the motor pool they had the Army band playing to welcome us and they had reporters and took a big group picture of all of us so called heroes that answered the call. This had to be the only group picture where everyone was holding there heads down a bit embarrassed thinking if they only knew what really went on that day at the camp and the enjoyable time we spent with the scouts.

  7. dave nelson says:

    I remember this fire from my first vsit to Big Sur though I don’t remember the dramatic smoke shown in these pictures. I was here in August- don’t remember seeing all that much fire. Must have been after things were under control. Seemed like businesses were open. We stayed a night or two in the brand new Molera State Park. Loooong time ago-

  8. Deb (Albertson) Lottman says:

    Hey Lou,
    I remember Dick too! We spent every July in the 60’s & 70’s at the Big Sur campground, it was a quick walk to Dicks. It was a sad day that the mudslide took out the store & garage :o(

  9. Chuck Kelso says:

    Worked that fire in 1972 as part of the Los Padres NF Enginering. We had worked a half day in the back country behind Santa Barbara. At noon they pulled us out of the forest because of high fire danger. Can remember hearing the fire call go out, while having coffee in our office. Drove north the rest of that day to get to the fire camp located on the old Molera Ranch off Hwy 1. Then we worked another 18-20 hours before getting rest. It was just the beginning of a long fire season.

  10. Joe bartlett says:

    How many acres?

  11. Tim Costa says:

    About 4,000 acres.

  12. Lois DeFord says:

    The Molera fire was my first Big Sur fire. We were evacuated from Pfeiffer Ridge, as a precaution I guess. The fire didn’t go that way at all. Pfeiffer Ridge’s time came in 2013.

  13. David Perry says:

    My brother just wrote me and asked if I remembered the Molera Fire. That memory is still sharp. We were part of the National Guard response, and drove firefighters up and down the makeshift road to the fire, camping down at Molera State Park at the fire camp. I worked down there for the phone company for over 20 years as the repairman, with Marty Evans, who mostly did the installations. The people who live in Big Sur are modern day pioneers, and like all other times when they were called upon to stick it out and step up, they were equal to the task. I miss them all.

  14. Jack Siegfried says:

    We were a federal hotshot crew (Sierra Sundowners) in Fresno, and a plane was sent to FAT to pick us up and take us to Monterey. Buses were there to take us down to Big Sur for first attack duty at night. The ranger pointed up the spine of a ridge and passed out miners lights and batteries for our helmets. He said we had until morning to cut in a fire break, and we might beat the fire (3 ridges north) to the top. Working through the manzanita, with chain saws at the front and all manner of fire tools behind, we did beat it there for evacuation by morning.
    At night there was plenty of light for work provided by our lamps, and the fire tornados on our left as each ridge was crested. We didn’t take time to dispatch the many snakes headed away from the heat; just used our tool to flick them to the ‘cold’ side and keep on clearing down to bare dirt and roots. Firelight flickering off snake scales alerted us to their arrival.
    For many years after, as I drove down Hwy 1I could still pick out the fire break we cut that night.
    Jack Siegfried, one of many Sierra Sundowners, and Morningstar Firefighters.

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