Backfire is right and wrong

Times Staff Writers

As flames swirled toward their family homestead, the Curtis brothers figured they’d get no help and had no choice: The only way to hold on to their 55-acre compound would be to fight fire with fire.

In the end, the controlled burn they set helped save the homes on their beloved Apple Pie Ridge -- but not without major consequences.

Outraged authorities arrested Ross Curtis, 48, on Friday on suspicion of illegally setting a backfire after disobeying official orders to stop.


His older brother, Micah, remains in Big Sur but is acting like a wanted man, dodging sheriff’s deputies when he descends from the homestead to Highway 1.

“I understand what’s going on. They don’t want a bunch of idiots setting off fires that could do more harm than good,” Micah Curtis, a 57-year-old artist, said as he walked the scene of the crime Saturday. “But we saved our homes. I’m not asking them to condone it, but they’ve got to understand it.”

As fires approach, homeowners often take up garden hoses to face down flames. But for them to light backfires is rare, authorities say -- and they’d like it to stay that way.

Cliff Williams, the law enforcement official with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection who arrested Ross Curtis, said fire crews went to the ridge several times and ordered a stop.

Instead, the brothers kept up their rebel battle.

“Mr. Curtis over a period of three days decided he wanted to fight the fire his way,” Williams said. “So he started setting backfires.”

And that tricky firefighting technique, Williams said, is best left to professionals backed up by full crews and fire engines. Such fires can blow out of control, he said, burning other houses or inadvertently trapping people.

The brothers, who live with relatives and several tenants in a terraced collection of artsy, redwood-sided homes, including one fashioned from an old water tank, say they knew there were risks but believed there was too much at stake not to take action.

They have plenty of land but are hardly wealthy. Ross Curtis is an electrical contractor. Micah Curtis sculpts steel.

Income from the rental homes pays for the care of their elderly mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. They weren’t only fighting for themselves, Micah said, they were defending Mom and Apple Pie Ridge.

The family has owned the 55 acres since the early 1960s, when patriarch Jack Curtis -- a Hollywood television writer, with “Gunsmoke” and “The Rifleman” among his credits -- traded up from a smaller place down the mountainside to this property that straddles a redwood-carpeted ridge 1,000 feet above Big Sur River.

Over the years, the Curtises have improved the various buildings. They planted a 200-tree avocado orchard, carved out the terraced gardens, laid out a funky spread of concrete ponds with lily pads, and carefully pruned rosebushes and ornamental shrubs.

The brothers took over stewardship of the property after their father died six years ago.

“Dad was the Duke of Apple Pie,” Micah said. “I guess that makes me the Earl.”

In the last 25 years, they have fought back flames twice before, he said. He learned how as a seasonal firefighter while in college.

But the Basin Complex fire, raging for the last two weeks, has been the worst test yet.

It started when a volley of crackling bolts from a lightning storm sent flames roaring.

The Curtis brothers watched with the rest of Monterey County -- and began to prepare for the worst at the first signs of nearby smoke.

With their tenants, friends and relatives stepping up to help, they used chain saws, hoes and shovels to clear fire breaks around the buildings, hauling away at least 150 pickup-truck loads of vegetation, Micah Curtis said.

On Thursday, the situation got particularly dicey as the fire picked up strength and bore down on their retreat, a five-minute drive up a twisting dirt road from Big Sur village.

Their small team of amateurs toiled into the night, trying to beat back flames by pumping water from the swimming pool with makeshift fire hoses.

As the fire closed in on three sides, Micah Curtis said, they used a flare to set controlled burns no more than a dozen feet from the blaze. That not only steered it away from their houses, he said, but also created a broader line of defense, which helped state and federal fire crews protect the village below.

Giving a tour of the property over the weekend, Micah Curtis bumped into a state fire captain doing mop-up work with an inmate crew.

The captain, who asked not to be identified because of the controversy, praised the work of the amateurs of Apple Pie Ridge.

“I’ll tell you what,” the captain told him, “you guys did a good job of holding it.”

Praise also came from other professionals.

“Awesome,” a U.S. Forest Service crew leader said, shaking his head in disbelief. “You did an awful lot of work up here.”

Walking his property Saturday, Micah Curtis, still in a silver hard hat and a yellow fire suit smudged by soot and dirt, pointed just down the ridge to a neighbor’s home, now only a smoldering pile of debris.

As flames encroached, he said, he feared that the fire would circle below his family’s homestead and “come racing up at us through a thousand feet of dry brush.”

As for the backfires, he said, “I was the one who OKd the idea. So the buck stops with me.”

His younger brother, however, took the fall.

They were at work on the backfires when fire officials spied them from the other side of the Big Sur River gorge, Micah Curtis said. When officers arrived on the scene, Ross Curtis turned himself in as the culprit so the others could keep working.

Micah Curtis still believes that he and his brother should be receiving thanks, not condemnation, from the authorities.

After all, he said, firefighters didn’t volunteer to do the job for them.

“They have some computer program that says our place is undefendable,” he said. “But their idea of defendable space is something as flat as Nebraska. This is no more dangerous than some sketchy part of L.A., and that doesn’t keep the police from going into a rough neighborhood.”

Ross Curtis, however, sounds more contrite. Maybe it’s the experience of having been behind bars, even if he was bailed out after only a few hours.

He is scheduled to be arraigned July 15 on two misdemeanor counts. In the meantime, he can’t get through the police blockade set up after evacuation orders. So he’s staying in a trailer near Monterey Bay, lent to him by his wife’s father, a Baptist preacher.

Without their two weeks of toil, Ross Curtis believes, the family’s ridge-top homes would have been destroyed. He said he doesn’t think he’s guilty of anything more than protecting land he cherishes. Still, he understands why fire officials are irate.

They explained it to him, he said, during his brief stay in jail. An unauthorized backfire, they said, can catch a team of firefighters unaware and perhaps put those crews in danger. Kill a firefighter, they told him, and you go to prison for life.

“Their concern was for their firefighters, and to them, we were a bunch of renegades or something,” Ross Curtis said. “All it takes is one gust of wind at the wrong time and it can go sideways on you.”

And that, he said, “can be the difference between a good day and a bad day.”