Living with Wildfire Waging war on the campfire tradition in Big Sur

Photo by Cal Fire

By Kate Woods Novoa

My son came home from town one recent night, only to find campers near where the Plaskett 2 Fire of 2000 started — a mere 40 acres away from me. They had a campfire. He confronted them, made them put it out. It was 9:30 on a Sunday night on the Fourth of July weekend, just as I thought all the latest round of holiday craziness had ended.

They were campers who don’t think they can really be camping unless they have a campfire. We see way too many of them in Big Sur.

Like most everyone who lives in Big Sur, we were cautious and ever vigilant during the July 4th weekend. The usual concerns about campfires are aggravated by people shooting off illegal fireworks but sadly, the Fourth of July is only the beginning of what can be a very long season.. In thinking back over the last 30 years living on the South Coast, I can’t recall any significant fires starting on the Fourth of July. But I clearly remember my first wildfire up here on the mountain, not in July, but in October.

It was the Wild Fire of 1996, named after Wild Cattle Canyon, where it started. It was arson. Jeff Avila had a contract with the U.S. Forest Service to provide services in case of a wildfire and it had been a mercifully quiet fire season. That meant no income and no work for Avila, so he decided to create some. He paid another man $2,000 to drive Highway 1 and throw a flare up a steep canyon on the South Coast around 10 p.m. 

* Related story: The Raging History of Big Sur Wildfires

Some of the people at the top of that canyon, my friends and neighbors, were awake. Some were awakened by the sound of a shotgun and the scream of fire. Avila made $80,000 by renting firefighting equipment to the U.S. Forest Service during that fire, which burned more than 14,000 acres and destroyed five houses. Avila pled guilty to arson and was sentenced to five years in prison; the man he hired was sentenced to slightly over three years. And thus I was introduced to living with fire in the wilds of Big Sur. But it would not be until my second fire, the Plaskett 2 Fire, when I would begin researching and reading all I could about fires. 

It was not a particularly big fire, it didn’t threaten too many structures, but it was my own very close encounter with fire. It happened in July 2000. It was called the Plaskett 2 Fire because there had already been a fire in the Plaskett Creek area of Big Sur that year, but that fire was contained rapidly and kept under 10 acres. Plaskett 2 was started by a camper who decided to light the water heater in his 4×4 camper with a paper towel, which he promptly dropped in the dry grass.

I was home, alone, with three dogs. Four of my neighbors, one a local volunteer in a fire brigade truck, were first to arrive. They helped me prepare to evacuate. One of them had previously lost her house to fire, so she barked orders to me on what to pack, while another neighbor picked up my biggest dog (more than 100 pounds) and loaded him into my Jeep. 

'The fire came through the property, only yards from where I was living.'

I took off down the mountain, driving on a road that had fire on both sides. Fortunately, the flames were not very tall. It was still eerie. The fire came right through the property, only yards from where I was living, but I lost only vegetation. I was evacuated for the good part of a week as my property was turned into a battleground: more than 1,000 people battled the blaze.

After that fire, I started reading about wildfires — the historical ones, the recent ones, the famous ones — whatever books I could find. I read up on fire behavior and amassed a significant collection of books, and some knowledge of firefighting and its terminology, knowledge I have subsequently used while reporting on the local fires. Since that day, Big Sur has had four other large fires that I have covered on my blog

The worst fire — the fire that exhausted this coast — was the 2016 Soberanes Fire, which started from an illegal campfire in the back country and eventually burned more than 132,000 acres. It lasted from July 22 to Oct. 12, destroying 57 homes and taking one life.

It is officially fire season in the Los Padres National Forest, and that means that almost everyone in Big Sur is on edge, holding our collective breath, as it were. It also happens to be when the area is most crowded with tourists. Some of these visitors are completely unfamiliar with wildfire conditions, being from states or countries that don’t face the danger we do each summer. We try to educate them, and we do, but it is still a crapshoot.  

The biggest concern of many Big Sur residents is traffic. Due to the craziness at Bixby Bridge — a line 2.75 miles long on July 4th — can anyone predict how long it will take for any emergency vehicles to be able to get to a fire? There are crucial minutes lost due to traffic jams in several areas on Highway 1. Do we all prepare to shelter in place because there is no clear evacuation route or way for fire crews to get to us? 

Our Big Sur Fire, a volunteer brigade, has trained in tandem with the USFS for the Federal Responsibility Areas. They have also trained with Cal Fire, which is in charge of the State Responsibility Areas, which includes all residential areas, even if it is only one house.

Here in Big Sur, our local, state and federal firefighters are some of the best men and women in the nation. They are experienced and well trained and led by professionals. But all that training and experience means nothing if they cannot get to a fire in time to get organized and to get lines of  communications established. The serious traffic issues Highway 1 presents is getting worse each year, and any fire may already be exploding by the time firefighters are able to reach it. 

Many of us will not take a deep breath again until after the rains start. It will take all of us — Big Surians and guests paying close attention — to avoid another Soberanes Fire. Meanwhile, we pray for a quiet fire season for all the fire-prone areas of California and for all our firefighters and first responders. We average one just over every three years during the last 16 years. It has been three years. 

Please remember: camping does not require a campfire. 

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Kate Woods Novoa

About Kate Woods Novoa

Since 1985, Kate Woods Novoa has lived in Big Sur, working as a public defender for Monterey County. She started the bigsurkate blog ( during the 2008 Basin Complex fire and kept at it when she didn’t intend to.