Escape from the Dolan Fire Big Sur Kate packs up, heads out for safer pastures

| Photo by Brendon Shave


The Dolan Fire exploded earlier this week, more than doubling its size overnight and causing new evacuation orders in Big Sur. As of Thursday, the fire was at more than 111,000 acres with no containment date in sight.

One of the evacuees was Voices correspondent Big Sur Kate, aka Kate Novoa. She also has become the eyes, ears and heart of Big Sur, reporting about the politics and the disasters that befall the South Coast on her blog.

Sadly, this isn’t Kate’s first go-around with being evacuated. Although she has a well laid-out plan for bugging out, it’s still a devastating and emotional journey for her and hundreds of others displaced by this fire, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of other people throughout the state who have had to flee other major fires.


By Kate Novoa
As told to Kathryn McKenzie

I had been following the Dolan Fire since it started … tracking its progress for 23 days. I had the number of a public information officer I could always call. I still was surprised by the order to evacuate. Seemed too early, to me.

In 26 years of living up here, the Dolan is my seventh major Big Sur fire, starting with the Wild Fire of 1996. In the lesser known fire of 2000, the Plaskett 2 Fire was my first evacuation — 20 years ago, this past July.

The Dolan Fire started Aug. 18. (Editor’s note: Investigators believe the fire was intentionally set by someone at a cannabis farm; a suspect is in jail on $2 million bail.) It was overwhelming. I started covering the River Fire on my blog, and then the Dolan Fire two days later.

I had an evacuation warning for a period of a few days for my zone, “K” South Coast Ridge, but I got the order to evacuate on Tuesday morning, around the time it jumped Nacimiento Road at the station, or about 8:30 a.m. This is when the burnover happened that injured three firefighters.


Photo by Brendon Shave

When the first firefighters started coming through Tuesday morning, my 11-month-old German shepherd puppy in training — she’s my COVID isolation partner — got another lesson in guard dog duty from my border collie. She chased trucks up to the water tank and then came back. The third truck stopped, a firefighter got out and approached as Ladybug, the puppy, came back to me. The firefighter asked me to keep my dogs inside as there was going to be a lot of traffic coming through.

I suddenly had much more fire traffic coming through my road than I had had before. I am signed up for every kind of notice provided, so I got the order about four times.

I keep my van stocked with people food, dog food, 10 gallons of water, coffee, cooking supplies, portable power, clothing and an I.C.E. (In Case of Emergency) stash of important papers, cash, jewelry, etc. in my van from the beginning of fire season on. I keep a to-go bag ready by the door.

I did not plan on leaving the day of the order, as I knew how slow the fire had been moving, but that night I had not slept well, and knew that something was different. My son, Brendon, went and took some photos from a spot closer to the area that had been breached, and came back saying it was time to pack up and get ready to leave. I replied, “I am not ready.”


Photo by Brendon Shave

I was determined to stay another day. I was still frantically gathering and reporting intel on my blog. Brendon calmly explained if we were going to take out both my Sprinter van and my Toyota Tacoma, we would need to get going. It would take an hour just to get the van out. He followed me down, then took me back up to get my truck. I grabbed a few last-minute things I knew I had forgotten — like my meds, some ice blocks for the Yeti — and took the truck down when I was ready. Brendon stayed behind.

He was packing up his place, getting all the explosives such as propane and gasoline out on the road, when two sheriff’s deputies came and told him to leave. I didn’t hear from him for 24 hours, but he had gone back to the New Camaldoli Hermitage, where he works.

The Hermitage had been well protected the night before, even though surrounded by flames, so it was both a place he could shelter safely and could be of assistance in cleanup.

Even after evacuating, calls and emails kept coming. Congressman Jimmy Panetta called to check on me and the conditions, and to find out about Silver Peak Wilderness area. Former Carmel mayor Sue McCloud called. And then I got interviewed, unexpectedly, at the truck stop diesel station over the phone by AP.

The news of the injured firefighters saddens me greatly. I know two of the firefighters who were hospitalized. I pray for them tonight, and for the others who live through the experience with them.

I heard stories and saw neighbors as they came through, or when we met on the road. Vehicles loaded with pets, possessions and the pieces of our lives. We all hope to have homes to come home to.


Photo by Brendon Shave

Tonight I am too drained to think. I teeter-tottered between numbness from shock and feeling like I might break down in tears. I was driving. Can’t do that. So maybe tonight I’ll take a few minutes to grieve for the destruction of the land and the critters I have lived with for 33 years, 26 of them up here.

We came to an RV place in Paso Robles that we are familiar with and have used before. Rock Knocker, my old friend, keeps his RV in Paso. I had an offer in Cambria for me and my two dogs, but when Rock Knocker told me of his plans, we decided to do what we have done for several years by traveling in an RV. This time we are not traveling, so let’s see if we can still get along for two weeks. We are great travel partners, but we can’t be married and can’t live together. We will see which this is …

I am afraid I might be in for an adrenaline crash tonight … maybe into tomorrow. But happy to get news this morning (Thursday) that the line at Prewitt is holding, that none of my friends’ homes have been damaged, and that one of them who evacuated from Alm’s Ridge when her water pump died is here in Paso. We are meeting for lunch.

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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.