Living with fire sometimes means learning to rebuild
March 22, 2012
June 23, 2008, friends in Alpine County received the news that the Partington Ridge, Big Sur home of former resident Heidi Hopkins burned to the ground.
Hopkins lived in Alpine County from 1982-1988. Her first job was cleaning cabins at Sorensen’s resort. She became a founding board member of Friends of Hope Valley, first director of the Alpine County Arts Council and editor of Alpine Enterprise, while running her business, East Side Sewing. In 1988 she received an editorial internship with National Wildlife Federation and moved to Washington D.C. Subsequently she worked for Trust for Public Lands in San Francisco and Mono Lake Committee in Lee Vining.
The house at the end of the ridge was built by her father, Sam Hopkins, in 1948 and overlooked the ocean 2,000 feet below. It was Heidi’s childhood home and she and her husband, Jim Merz, had been living there.
Two days before it burned, on June 21, while Heidi and Jim were staying at Mono Lake, there was a thunderstorm. Heidi checked the Nepenthe web cam for conditions in Big Sur and saw a plume of smoke a few miles north of her house.
She called neighbors on the ridge to ask them about the approaching fire. She then called her brother, Kip, in Carmel Valley to alert him of the fire. Discovering that the ridge road had been closed, Kip, who walks with a limp because his foot was shattered some years ago, walked the two miles to the house up a rugged back road. He did what he could including laying out the hose ready for the Forest Service fire crew.
When the crew arrived they lit a backfire and left. A backfire is a slow fire which is intended to meet the encroaching fire, depriving it of oxygen and fuel, thereby extinguishing it. Fire moves downhill slowly and uphill rapidly. Uphill runs occur when a large pocket of material, such as a thick stand of brush or a pile of downed limbs, catches fire creating intense heat which sends fingers of fire roaring up the slope. Around the house there was good clearance, but the wood of the sixty year-old-house was tinder dry and – the real problem – the house’s deck overhung the slope. A stiff north wind blew embers to the south of the house; these started a fire whose heat and sparks raged up the slope and ignited the deck of the house. The fire crew’s chief returned three times, putting the house fire out twice. Recognizing it was useless the third time, he wept over the loss.
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Heidi and Jim lost their home in the first 36 hours of wind but the wildland fire lasted some two months. After Heidi’s house burned it took about two weeks for the fire to crawl down to the highway, threatening neighbors’ homes as it went. Three houses and several storage containers burnt on the ridge.
Heidi calls this fire “A Perfect Storm” for the following reasons:
n The fire was one of 800 in the state during that time; resources were spread thin.
n The fire hit at about 3 a.m. so there was no air support.
n For the first 36 hours there was a strong wind.
n Telephone service was out at Heidi’s Partington Ridge house.
n Heidi, Jim and the caretaker were all away from the property at the same time – a rare occurrence.
(Artists who were staying at the house managed to rescue treasured art).
The day after the fire Heidi walked up to the burn site. One might expect, as she did, that she would have wept on beholding the wreckage, but when she arrived she was overwhelmed by the thought: “What a mess!” There is a group of volunteer men from a Southern Baptists Convention in Alabama which specializes in such messes. They appeared on the scene days later and performed an extraordinarily thorough clean-up.
Renewal began immediately after the destruction. Jim and Kip restored the waterline within one week. Within two weeks the redwoods were sending forth green tufts. The insurance company, Allstate, was excellent in its response. Plans to reconstruct were quickly underway and an architect, an old friend, was hired by the end of the year. The guest house, protected by a large oak, did not burn so Heidi and Jim could stay on the property overseeing the project. After one year, ground was broken and two years later the new house was built.
The first spring after the fire was phenomenal, with the native pea growing in abundance, suppressing weeds and infusing the land with nitrogen. Goldfields, poppies, lupine and blue dick carpeted the slopes.
It is a joy to see the renewal of land and home.