Big Sur Kate: A day in the life Chasing down reports of wildfires and craziness

Fire in Big Sur | Kate Novoa


By Kate Woods Novoa

I have been working on several ideas for my next article — some are merely jottings, others are beginning to be researched — but all of that was put on hold on July 30. I had a fire visible out my window, and paying attention to wildfires is what I do.

It started with the Basin Fire in 2008 and has continued ever since. I can’t and won’t leave during fire season, unless there is a family emergency, as I have a window to the majority of Big Sur coast to the north from my “perch” up here on the South Coast. I feel that with this special place comes a responsibility to my community and the land. A way to give back was placed in my hands and I gladly accepted. I became a voice for my community — a voice that sometimes is loud and persistent, and one that sometimes makes a difference. I am humbled and honored to have this opportunity.

It is summer, and fire season, and reckless visitor season, and my job is to watch, listen, and be aware to provide information in an area where the “normal” channels are usually a couple days behind. My job is to be as accurate as I can be, to stifle the usual Big Sur rumor machine, and as one of my friends said, “to keep others calm and focused.”

I woke at 6 a.m. on July 30, and I already had voice mails, emails and private messages from neighbors, so I got to work before coffee — not usually a safe thing for me to do, but this was different. I cannot even remember when I was able to grab my first cup, but I am sure it was hours later. I got a phone call that was not fire-related and I was rather brusque. I had no time for frivolities. I need to collect and organize my intel.

That first day, information is very hard to come by, especially on a “federal” fire. Their public information apparatus and personnel are not up and running for usually the first two to three days. Local news media outlets often don’t have the resources to grab breaking stories two hours down the coast to get any information outside of the usual press releases provided by the agencies. I can be up and running in an hour or less.

My blog is a one-person operation with help from contributions by neighbors and friends. I have a window, a camera, a phone and an internet connection. That, and a commitment, is all I have. So I started doing what I learned to do in the Basin Fire, and perfected over the years, particularly with the Soberanes Fire. I reported … and reported … and reported. This fire was blessedly short, unlike the ones I cut my teeth on, so on Day Five of the Mill Fire I was able to post this on my blog:

“This will be the last day I provide updates on this fire, unless there is a drastic change. One of my neighbors stopped by and said, ‘They get an A+ on the way they handled this fire.’ Yes, they do. There are so many to thank for what they did, but I was not ‘on the line,’ so I may not know the whole story, but it seems to me, the ICs (Incident Commanders) on this fire for the first 3 days deserve a lot of credit. They are the ones making the decisions, putting in the request for resources, and leading the effort. There were 2 ICs for the Mill Fire for those first critical 3 days — Tony Zavalla was the day IC and the night IC was Pete Harris of the USFS Nacimiento Station. Tony & Pete, you both did a terrific job.”

Besides Tony and Pete, we had the most cooperative agreement I have seen in my 30 years down here — USFS, Big Sur Fire, Fort Hunter Liggett, and Cal Fire working in coordinated effort, like a well-oiled (and trained) machine. While good weather played no small part (no wind, fuels still moist), it is the professional men and women who put everything on the line each fire and each season that make the difference.

It was not just the paid professionals, but also the volunteer professionals who made a difference. Our volunteer fire department was one of the first on the scene, as they so often are, and stayed and worked alongside their paid counterparts.The Monterey County Sheriff’s Officer volunteer Search and Rescue people made sure all the backcountry hikers and campers were found and warned and brought out. Once they were, Ventana Wilderness Alliance sent volunteers down to staff the trailhead to make sure no new hikers tried to go back there. Meaningful volunteerism is the sign of a healthy and civilized society. Big Sur is very healthy.

There are some lessons to be learned and shared from this fire, and I hope they are. Working together there is nothing we can’t accomplish. Team Big Sur — I salute you and tip my hat to your long hard hours of training and perseverance, and for caring so much. I wish I could meet and thank you all.

I know the season is not only not over, but just beginning, really, but I don’t think I have felt this safe in a very long time back here. My son, Brendon Shave, is “patrolling” many nights each week to educate the people he finds with illegal campfires. It makes a difference.

No one person can patrol all of Big Sur every night, but if we all chip in and do what we can, instead of waiting for some government agency to handle it, we can make a difference. Other neighborhoods have “neighborhood watches,” and we can establish neighborhood fire watches. Set up a meeting in your portion of Big Sur and set up fire patrols. Remember, polite and respectful works wonders with the uninformed.  Feeling empowered and feeling safe is a wonderful feeling.

This is our home. No one cares as much as we do, and no one takes care of it like we do. Let’s band together and take care of the problem instead of just complaining. Education and knowledge are the answer. Educate in every contact you have with our visitors in a respectful manner. You will get the message across better if people listen and hear you, and they won’t listen if they are not being respected and honored. We need to change our attitude, if we expect others to change theirs. We got this, Big Sur.

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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.