Big Sur and the Bonfires of the Insanities
Last night, a fire was started in a grassy field at Andrew Molera State Park, a major coastal access point about five miles north of the Big Sur Garden Gallery. It burned approximately 2 acres and forced the evacuation of the park's campground before it was contained about an hour after it was first reported. Fire crews are still on the scene this morning, ensuring there are no hot spots that could flare up again.
No official statements as to the cause have been released yet, but Big Sur is a small community and many residents are volunteer firefighters, State Parks and Forest Service employees, or have other kinds of working relationships with CalFire and the CHP. In other words, people talk. And according to the talk, it appears that this fire was sparked by a tourist who deliberately ignited some material, outside of any approved firepit, for reasons that are unclear but possibly in order to provide lighting for a photograph. Burning the world down was probably not this person's intention, but intention is the last thing anybody cares about when their homes and lives are threatened.
Big Sur has endured several major fires over the last 10 years. A lightning-sparked wildfire in 2008 burned over 200,000 acres, mainly through backcountry, but also through some of the small ridgetop subdivisions on the east side of the highway both north and south of the Gallery. More recently, a fire caused by faulty wiring destroyed over 20 homes and outbuildings on Pfeiffer Ridge just before Christmas in 2013. But this year, it is the sheer NUMBER of small fires set by tourists in our parched, drought-stricken land that has the entire community on edge. There was the cliffside set ablaze when a family barbequeing in a turnout threw their live coals over the edge; the dozens of illegal campfires that have been left smoldering unattended on Old Coast, Coast Ridge, and Nacimiento-Ferguson roads; and now this latest incident. The common thread in all of these cases is RECKLESSNESS.
As Big Sur has become more popular over the last decade, more and more people are traveling here, many of whom demonstrate an extreme lack of awareness when it comes to basic wilderness etiquette. And it's impossible to educate everybody. Even if we put up more signs, in more languages; even if we tell reporters to address littering and fire safety in their pieces every time we speak to the media; even if we ourselves in the service industry were to tell every single person we see all summer long about the importance of heeding the posted rules - it's just incredibly disheartening to know that we can't stop those who think nothing of throwing burning coals into sagebrush, lighting something in a field of dry grass, or building a campfire in a turnout only a few hundred yards from a "Fire Danger High" sign. It's our livelihoods and our lives that are at stake, and there are a bunch of people out there who simply don't care, or don't think the rules apply to them. This mentality also leads to the litter that collects on the sides of our beautiful highway and on our beaches, and the injuries or deaths from falls that occur when people climb over cliffside fences erected for their safety.
So please, if you visit Big Sur, or any wildland community, take the time to educate yourself. Call the local ranger station or visitor's center and find out what kind of fire or camp stove restrictions are in place. Find out what the rules are about where you can legally camp, and if the rules are different on Forest Service land, inside State Parks, and on private property. Keep all of your food wrappers and other waste in a trash bag until you can dispose of it properly. Stay on marked trails and heed posted signs. NEVER flick a cigarette out the window or into the wilderness along a trail! Pass your knowledge on to your friends and family. If you see reckless and dangerous behavior with fire, report it to a ranger, campground manager, or police. Help us keep Big Sur beautiful and unburnt!
One final note: Big Sur south coast resident Kate Novoa has a blog dedicated to covering fires, road conditions, and other important events affecting the community. I encourage you to check it out!