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
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.