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Pfeiffer fire rips through close-knit Big Sur community

Blaze destroys at least 14 homes before it is 20% contained, but Big Sur residents resolve to face the crisis together.

December 17, 2013|By Lee Romney

BIG SUR, Calif. — It's a season that residents in this storied coastal community of rugged hills and spiritual beauty normally associate with floods, not fire.

But as a fine rain of ash fell on the northern stretch of Big Sur on Tuesday, old-timers, new-timers and business owners took it all in with a fierce resolve to help one another, as they have in just about every other disaster. And there have been plenty.

The Pfeiffer fire, which seemed to roar out of nowhere shortly after midnight Monday, grew to 769 acres Tuesday, U.S. Forest Service incident commander Mark Nunez said at an afternoon community meeting. It was 20% contained — up from 5% Tuesday morning — and full containment was expected by Friday.

Although two dozen structures in the heart of the fire zone had been saved, 22 were destroyed, at least 14 of them homes.

Amid the anxiety and exhaustion, however, what emerged was the united face of a community used to sticking together, come floods, rock slides and fires.

The rustic inns and motels that dot Highway 1 took in evacuees, who numbered more than 100. Neighbors carted enough clothing donations to the Big Sur Health Center to keep the community in threads "for at least five years," said Executive Director Sharen Carey.

Rick Aldinger, general manager of the Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant, offered free rooms and food to those in need.

"I've been in Big Sur 25 years, and it's not our first rodeo," Aldinger said, listing the floods of 1995 and 1998 and the massive Basin fire of 2008. "But what is absolutely consistent is how this community helps itself and its members."

At the Fernwood Resort, American Red Cross volunteers had set up a crisis center, offering counseling and sandwiches. But there was no need for a temporary shelter.

"They're taking care of each other," said Liz Ford, the nonprofit's Monterey County disaster chairwoman, noting with incredulity that one man who had lost everything instead asked her what he could do to help.

Nearly all of the homes that burned were on Pfeiffer Ridge, including one belonging to Martha Karstens, chief of the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade. She stood before a sympathetic community Tuesday afternoon and struggled to compose herself.

"Martha, all our hearts go out to you for your loss," Rep. Sam Farr (D-Monterey) told her.

Losses like hers were felt deeply here.

"Her house was the first to go and she built it. It's her dream," said Tracey Roginson, 58, a 30-year resident who works at the Ripplewood Resort store. "Everybody there built their own homes, and they didn't live there because they are rich, they lived there because they bought the land a long time ago.... This fire is the most heartbreaking because I know all these people personally."

Also among them were Ray and Celia Sanborn, who built a redwood house and a life here 44 years ago. They got out with one car, one truck, a cat named Wiley and the clothes on their backs.

They had bought their lot on Pfeiffer Ridge when Celia was just 16 and Ray a 23-year-old spiritual student at the famed Esalen Institute. They raised two sons — one a psychologist in Monterey; the other, Basil Sanborn, now owner of the Glen Oaks Motor Lodge and Roadhouse Restaurant here.

When the community needed a health center because "hippies were having babies in the trees," Ray Sanborn, now 68, was among the community leaders who stepped up to make it happen. Now he often helps bridge the culture gap between newcomer multimillionaires and "people who don't have deep pockets at all."

Celia, 60, is convinced it was the smell of smoke that awakened her just after midnight Monday — and she's horrified by what might have come to pass if she had slept on. She shook Ray, and when he stepped outside, large embers were already falling on their beloved home, now in cinders. A wall of orange flame was closing in.

Pfeiffer Ridge had not burned in 100 years, and despite brush clearance efforts that Nunez commended as exceptional, the foliage was as dry as tinder.

The couple were prepared — with a water tank, fire hoses and a sprinkler system at the ready. But there was simply no time. No time to grab a wallet, or a laptop packed with essential tax records.

No time for Ray to find his mother's wedding ring or grab the cartoon homage to his father, William Sanborn, who served as The Times' Sunday news editor until the mid-1970s.

"It's the things you can't replace," he said, his voice trailing, as he sat in his son's restaurant. "The fact that we had no time. I never thought it would happen that way."

As Ray went for help in his truck, Celia drove up the ridge, leaning on the horn, stopping to bang on the doors of her sister, sister-in-law, brother and mother. Their sons soon joined Celia's brother and others, using a 300-gallon private fire tanker and drawing on swimming pool water with a pool pump to keep the remaining family structures safe.

"These are local people," Ray Sanborn said as he flipped through photos Basil had taken, which showed a wall of flame just feet from structures. "This is family up there, fighting fire."

The task of rebuilding now begins. Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter told residents late Tuesday that the board had passed a disaster proclamation and forwarded it to the governor. Potter promised an expedited permit system.

As for the Sanborns, Ray learned that a new water system is probably compromised because the fire damaged the galvanized steel. But things like that don't matter.

"We got out by the skin of our teeth," Celia said. "I'm just grateful for that. The rest is just stuff."

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