Area Fire History

Many residents have inquired about the fire history of the area. I found an article that was from an old Mid Coast Fire Brigade newsletter. The article was originally written and researched by Carol Kobus, a few items have been updated. As with anything, I hope when you read this history you take it to heart and realize that a fire can and will occur in this area again, this time with a much higher loss as there are many, many more residents. Let’s learn from our history and make sure you provide defensible space around your home. After all history usually repeats itself.

In the area served by the Mid Coast Fire Brigade, the earliest fire of any size I recall hearing about was sometime around the turn of the century. It burned out into Rocky Creek far enough to destroy the big house of the Murray family. The fire burned the interior of the Santa Lucias but didn’t reach the coast. It might have been the one Robinson Jeffers referred to in “CONDOR” as occurring in 1909, on the other hand it could have been in 1911 when there was a major wildland blaze that destroyed thousands of acres of National Forest land. “Rosemont”, as the Murray home was called, because it was literally covered with rose bushes, was a replacement for the original house that had burned down earlier. The present house (Ruth Albee’s) was then a combination storehouse, tack and feed shed. It escaped burning and the family moved into it after the fire. Miss Murray spoke with pride later of the way her aged mother had exited the threatened house with immense calm and dignity and without a backward glance while the rest of the household scrambled madly grabbing furniture and other possessions and carrying them out to safety in an open space away from the house.

In December 1917, just before the logging camp started logging operations in Bixby Creek, the crew started burning debris and undergrowth in the woods to facilitate work there and the fire got away and went roaring up the mountains toward Rocky Creek and Arthur LaChance’s Ranch, which was later Barney Segal’s and which now belongs to the Monterey County Regional Parks. The winter had been dry and there had been no rain in December so things burned fast. It crossed the summit of Long Ridge quickly and then burned slowly downhill to LaChance’s barn and cabin. The Rounds (later to marry and become a Goetz) were then living at the homestead in Turner Creek, and when they heard the fire had gotten away and was threatening LaChance they grabbed tools and hiked down the ridge trail to help save the buildings. The fire was already burning across the trail in places, and Mrs. Rounds gathered her skirt tight around her and ran through the fire as fast as she could. When they reached LaChance’s the fire was right up to the fence near the barn so they put it out along the fence and saved the barn and cabin, Arthur LaChance as well, for he was disabled and unable to fight the fire himself.

The 1924 fire was the “BIG ONE” until the Marble Cone Fire in 1977 broke the record. The 1924 fire started in Danish Creek on the other side of the range in the Carmel River drainage on August 26th, and burned 49,400 acres before the rain finally put it out on October 4th. It was said to have been started by a honey- mooning couple out for a hike that failed to practice safe smoking rules. Instead of stomping it out when it first started, they panicked and ran.
Once started, this fire traveled all over the map, pushed southward by the wind and then northerly and westward. Whenever it moved, each rancher saw it as an opportunity to get rid of whatever brush bothered him the most, so it wasn’t fought very seriously until it threatened someone’s improvements. It became a threat to the coastal side when it reached the Big Pines, where Francis and Jake Goetz fought it alongside ranchers from Cachaugua. The United States Forest Service fought this fire on federal land, but much of the land at that time was in private ownership and received no federal help.

William Randolph Hurst, who owned much of the North Fork of the Little Sur River at that time, bankrolled the firefighting there. A fire camp was established at Botchers Gap. Jules Kahofer, who lived at Pico Blanco, packed supplies to the firefighters and worked a two-week stretch almost without rest toward the end. Old man Hoffman, who owned Hoffman’s Resort in Palo Colorado (now the location of the lower Dome House on Palo Colorado Road), was fire boss and the resort-supplied food to the fire lines. With Hurst paying for all supplies and the payroll, Hoffman was getting indecently rich from the operation. He also ordered all sightseers stopped at Hoffman’s Camp and turned back. This was in no way justified at the time, but the rubberneckers invariably stayed long enough to eat a dinner at the resort, which was frosting on Hoffman’s cake. Naturally, as long as the Bonanza continued, nobody was going to try very seriously to put the fire out. For example, they had an excellent chance to halt the fire at Devils Peak that led into a previous burn near the Mead Spring in back of Twin Peaks, but a decision was made to let the fire burn down into Rocky Creek where the Alder Creek Fork joined it, because it was open and grassy and would be easier to fight. That night an east wind of near gale force came up and the fire exploded, heading straight for Palo Colorado and Hoffman’s Camp. Overnight the fire swept from Devils Peak nearly to the Hoist destroying cabins and thousands of dollars worth of split redwood products and everything in its path. The firefighters fled before a panicked fire boss started several backfires with complete disregard for the consequences in a frenzied effort to save his resort.

The main fire and the backfires met in Brandon Gulch where another cabin burned, and four more cabins went up in smoke at the sawmill flat where the Rounds family later made their home. The Murray house would have burned if Stanley Dani and a crew from Big Sur hadn’t arrived in time to save it. The Rounds family at this time lived at the LaChance place. Mrs. Rounds and her daughter Mary wielded hose to put out spot fires in the fields and up the hillsides. The network of trails made by their herd of milk goats helped immensely in controlling the fire here, for the spot fires could be put out quickly as they reached these trails. Over in Little Sur the firefighters dropped their tools and fled as the fire roared down on them, meanwhile, Jules Kahofer had collapsed from fatigue in his cabin on Pico Blanco. A family named Carlyle who used to camp in Little Sur every summer heard he was in there alone and they hiked up Pico Blanco to his cabin and found him unconscious with the fire burning past his buildings. He said afterward he would have died if they hadn’t come. The east wind finally blew in a rainstorm that mercifully ended the fire on Oat Flat Ridge behind Hoffman’s Camp on October 4th. By then it had burned from the hills behind Carmel Highlands to the Big Sur River tributaries of Ventana Creek and Doolan’s Hole, and from Carmel River almost to the coast.

In August 1939, a fire started by what was believed to be careless smoking on the southwestern slopes of Bixby Mountain, burning 10,000 acres before it was controlled. It was pushed by strong winds and it burned over most of the Mountain to Botchers Gap and into Little Sur and almost to the coast in Bixby Canyon. It burned into Upper Bixby Canyon and was stopped at the Hoist. This fire killed Joe Calandra of Napa, who worked for the California Department Of Forestry And Fire Protection and was stationed in King City and Carmel Valley. Because Joe was an experienced firefighter it was believed fatigue from chasing fires in various parts of the county for four days straight with little sleep had impaired his judgment or disoriented him, causing him to get trapped in the fire and burn to death near a spring on Bixby Mountain. Age 23 at the time of his death, he was to have been married in two weeks, and a bachelor party had been planned for him the week he died. A fire lookout near Lockwood was named after Joe and was known as the Calandra lookout. 1939 was a very bad year for lightning fires it was, in all respects, the worst fire season in 20 years. Mrs. Frida Sharpe, who owned a restaurant at Bixby Bridge, cooked for the fire crews on this fire and writer Lynda Sargent washed the dishes.

On a late afternoon in October of 1941, a fire broke out behind a cabin in the upper Garrapatos where a big weekend BBQ had taken place, and it was always suspected that there was a connection between the party and the fire. Strong winds from the northwest pushed this blaze to Rocky Creek almost overnight destroying some cabins along the way. It burned out Garrapatos, Palo Colorado and Upper Rocky Creek and burned out over Oak Flat Ridge to the coast at Westmere. The Smith’s saved the old house by keeping the roof wet with the help of a bucket brigade, as did the Rounds and Goetz families. The State crews told them they had better leave while they could, and added they could not risk equipment or personnel trying to save the structures in such a dangerous location. The families stayed and saved the houses by the bucket brigade method. The blackberry vines between the creek and the buildings gave them the most trouble; burning like kerosene and spitting sparks all the way up and onto the roofs. This fire was followed by an unusually wet winter. There were a total of seven floods, which destroyed the county road. When it was rebuilt, it was rerouted with fewer crossings of the creek. This fire was visible from Munras in Monterey soon after it broke out as a huge black mushroom looming above Jacks Peak. I watched it from the school bus.

The summer of 1949 brought two fires to Bixby Mountain. In June a fire started at the summit in Bear Trap Canyon owned by Charles Vander Ploeq, and in addition to the mill it destroyed several cabins as well as trucks and other vehicles. It was of suspicious origin, but the suspect, a delinquent rich kid from Pebble Beach who used to hang out in the area, was never arrested. Altogether 123 acres of timber, 120 acres of new growth, 208 acres of brush and grass burned. Two loggers burned to death in Bear Trap Canyon while trying to retrieve a new chainsaw that had just been purchased. They died in the creek bed, one man trying to shield the other from the flames. One of the men left a wife and two small children. In August the same summer a fire started at the Gregg Ranch at the summit of Bixby Mountain and burned the cabin and one other nearby and it burned part of Mescal Ridge and Bixby Canyon. The fire started when a dog that belonged to some deer hunters staying at the cabin knocked over a lantern while chasing a rat.

In October of 1954, the Devil Fire so called because it started on the lower side of Devils Peak, on the Skinner Creek side by the trail into Skinner Canyon. It was believed to have started from a smoldering cigarette. It was a clear, windy day and smoke from a controlled burn in Santa Clara County was carried clear down into the Santa Lucia Mountains so the smoke from the fire on Devils Peak was mistaken at first for smoke from Santa Clara. The firefighters didn’t get started on it until the middle of the night when the glow of flames could be seen. By morning, it was boiling up good from Skinner Ridge. It burned about a week, southward at first and then in a northerly direction with a shift in wind. By the time rain finally put this one out it had covered an area that extended from the North Fork of the Little Sur to the northern edge of the Garrapatos drainage. It cleaned out the entire headwaters of Garrapatos, Palo Colorado, and Rocky Creek, and came about halfway down to the Hoist. It took out Skinner Canyon and a couple of ridges that drop down into the Little Sur from Devil’s Peak. There was a United States Forest Service fire camp at Botchers Gap and a CDF fire camp at Segal’s ranch. The fire threatened the San Carlos ranch and the White Rock Club. At White Rock, it set a propane tank afire, and the tank came loose and was zooming erratically all over the place trailing a long tail of flame.

There have been numerous other small fires since the large ones mentioned above, none much above 50 acres or as spectacular until the Kirk Fire of 1999, which hit pretty close to home. The Brigade officially started keeping records in 1996 of calls they responded to, since 1996 the Brigade has responded to over 30 vegetation fires in our area. In the late summer and fall the coastal area is in its peak for fire danger, the fog generally stays offshore or low in the bottom of the canyons. This is the time of year we generally get the offshore flow; a fire that starts high in the canyon could potentially burn to the great Pacific fuel break in record time. Since the mapping project we have found trees overhanging the road, or roads so narrow in spots due in part to vegetation growth or erosion that emergency vehicles will not be able to make access to protect your home. While your number one priority may be to save your home our number one priority is safety and going home to our families when all is said and done, we can’t help you if you don’t take the time to provide clearance and the proper access, if you have trouble fitting your car up or down your road, imagine what it would be like in an emergency vehicle (big fire truck). In the late summer of 2003 many of us watched the news and listening in awe to the horrible fires in southern California. Hundreds of thousands of acres, hundreds of homes destroyed, 14 deaths or more, some people who died in their cars trying to escape the flames. We all think that it will never happen to us. I’m sure that every one of the homeowners who lost their homes to fires felt the same way. But it can happen to us. It has happened to us in the not too distant past. The conditions that caused the disastrous fires of the past are still with us today; the terrain, the fuels, the weather and the winds. As a matter of fact the conditions are worse than they were in the past. The last significant fire in our area was over 50 years ago and the brush fields have a very high percent of dead material in them, Sudden Oak Death is creating thousands of dead trees, hundreds of homes now exist where in the past only a few cabins existed. It is more a matter of when, not if, the conditions will again be right for the next disastrous fire in our area.

Please learn from our past history and take the time to help us to help you in the event of a wildland fire, provide defensible space.

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