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Weather aids fight in Big Sur

Times Staff Writers

It was the highest house on a winding road high above the Big Sur coastline, a simple place with drop-dead views and a spot in local history. Three decades ago, a few neighbors met there to organize an effort to keep Big Sur small and arty and largely undeveloped.

Now, the hand-built redwood structure is little more than rubble, a victim of the stubborn and unpredictable blazes battering Big Sur.

“All my life I knew it might burn -- and it finally did,” said Heidi Hopkins, who lived there until last week, when it was swept away by flame. “But when you live in a place like that, you have to take the consequences.”

Hopkins, the daughter of Big Sur Land Trust co-founder Nancy Hopkins, is one of dozens of residents who in the last 10 days have lost a home to the lightning-sparked fires that span the state from Nevada to the Pacific Ocean.

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Nearly 400,000 acres have been charred and 30 homes lost. Big Sur has more than its share, with two blazes blackening 100,000 acres and claiming at least 16 homes along the famous, rugged, 70-mile coastal strip. On Monday, residents awoke to a welcome wet fog. A northwest wind joined in to push the Basin Complex fire back onto itself, a good sign for the owners of more than 1,200 houses that fire officials fear still lie in its path.

But this has been a blaze more unpredictable than most, yo-yoing first one direction and then the opposite as hapless locals have watched or fled the peril and firefighters have struggled to protect some of the coast’s more irreplaceable properties.

The Hopkins home was lost. So was the historic Stone House, a cottage of rock and wood perched on a grassy knoll on the steep coastal mountains rising east from Highway 1. The Henry Miller Memorial Library, home to art and books and artifacts from the famed “Tropic of Cancer” author, survived when firefighters beat back flames in the hills just across the coast highway.

Smoke from the fires has billowed inland, into the San Joaquin Valley.

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Meanwhile, the New Age vacation mecca of Big Sur has been a virtual ghost town. The main highway has been shut down south of Nepenthe, the landmark coast-side restaurant. The Esalen retreat has closed its doors through at least Sunday, maybe longer if the fires persist.

The Ventana and Post Ranch inns reopened, but in the seaside hamlet of Big Sur -- still draped in smoke -- most small shops haven’t bothered.

The most threatened spot for now is at nearby Palo Colorado Canyon, a scattered collection of homes hidden in the steep hills east of California 1. Crews have been working feverishly to construct fire breaks.

“You don’t realize it driving along the highway, but there are quite a few homes tucked up in those hillsides,” said John Ahman, a Forest Service spokesman. “And those are what we’re most concerned with.”

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Corey Costanza and Robin Fann decided to leave town to get their 3-year-old daughter out of the smoke. The pair, both massage therapists at Esalen, figured she’d have a better chance battling the smoggy air of Los Angeles, so they headed south to visit friends and possibly hit Disneyland.

“For people who’ve chosen the lifestyle Big Sur offers, this is really sad,” Costanza said. “Some of our friends have lost their homes, and it’s going to be very difficult for them to rebuild.”

Fann’s mother hopes not to be one of them. Rachel Fann moved to Big Sur after the devastating Oakland Hills fire destroyed her home in 1991.

Now her place in the hills of Big Sur is imperiled.

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As flames edged across the ridge top above the house, firefighters doused the structure and cleared fire breaks all around. It took six of them to evacuate a neighbor’s balky pet pig, which was carted off to the county Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Fann, 61, got out with her two little dogs, Blossom and Mischief.

“I live in an extraordinary place, with views of the ocean out front and hills in back,” she said. “But my spiritual harbor is wherever I pitch my tent. I learned that from Oakland. So I feel calm. Everything I really care about is safe, and that’s my family and pets.”

At the Henry Miller Memorial Library, archivist Keely Richter was cleaning up Monday but didn’t know exactly when the memorial to the famed writer would reopen.

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“I’m very happy to be cleaning, rather than re-building,” she said.

The library houses an extensive collection of writings and memorabilia about Miller, the late novelist famed for his sexually explicit works and freewheeling lifestyle. Before his death in 1980, Miller was a Big Sur resident -- one of many artists and writers drawn to the area.

Last week, Richter shuttled between the library and the Post Ranch Inn down California 1, transferring most of the collection into storage in a climate-controlled concrete room at the resort where items from the Big Sur Historical Society also were placed in safekeeping.

“There are the archives, rare volumes, original art. These things are irreplaceable,” Richter said.

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So was Hopkins’ home high above the coast.

Hopkins, a retired conservationist, said her father built the core of the house in the early 1940s from local redwood. Over the years, the 800-square-foot rectangle tripled in size. Her family had been meticulous about removing surrounding brush, she said, but the house was “quite flammable.”

“At the end,” she said, “it was as if it had been built out of kindling.”

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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eric.bailey@latimes.com


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