In remote Big Sur, landowners unite to fight fires

Community Coordinator Suited to the Fire Reyner Marx with Big Sur (Illustration by The Real Deal with Getty)

Big Sur residents pride themselves on their self-sufficiency — a necessary trait on the mountainous stretch of California’s central coast, where settlements and utilities are scarce and many of the area’s 1,500 residents live entirely off-grid .

But frequent wildfires in the region are threatening this way of life like never before.

Big Sur is ideal for scenic and peaceful living, but not ideal for firefighting. Besides a local volunteer fire department, the closest fire district to much of the area is in Carmel Highlands, and the area’s winding roads mean it can take up to half a time to answer calls.

More than 100,000 acres of Big Sur have caught fire in the past 20 years. A recent blaze lasted for weeks in late January and burned around 700 acres before being brought under control.

“We all chose to live here, so what do we do in response to what nature does?” Big Sur owner Rayner Marx told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Firefighters are great but they can’t be everywhere all the time.”

Earlier this year, a group of Big Sur landowners teamed up to fund their own fire suppression infrastructure, complete with large water tanks and miles of distribution pipes, the Chronicle reported. Although he had a background in information technology, members of this informal coalition contributed $25,000 each to fund Marx’s role as a fire consultant.

Marx, who had a short stint with the local volunteer fire department, was tasked with protecting about two square miles of land in the area, which includes two resorts on Highway 1 and about three dozen residential properties in a canyon west of the highway. The owners estimate that the real estate is worth at least half a billion dollars.

“It’s become clear to us that Big Sur is getting harder and harder to live with with climate change,” said Butch Kronlund, one of the coalition’s landowners. “We know the fire is coming and we have to be prepared.”

Kirk Gafill, owner of a restaurant in the area, said the cost of fire insurance had quadrupled in the past four years.

“We have a real figurative gun to our heads as fire insurance has rapidly gone from expensive to almost unattainable,” he told the Chronicle. “We’re finding that we really need to take on more and more responsibility here, not just to make our case as attractive as possible to carriers, but to reduce the overall risk.”

Landowners in rural Northern California are beefing up their home defenses against wildfires is nothing new. Two years ago, a private Napa County crew was charged with setting off illegal burnbacks — intentional burns intended to slow the spread of wildfires — to protect the properties of wealthy clients.

Marx’s vision is more ambitious. He wants to create a “fire-friendly” community, according to the criteria of the National Fire Protection Association.

First, it asks homeowners to clear 100 feet of space around buildings and use fire-resistant building materials. Adopting metal roofs and double-glazed windows could help the community gain readiness recognition from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, thereby reducing the cost of insurance.

He also applied for state and federal grants to fund road improvements to make it easier for fire trucks to access. Above all, Marx is trying to add 500,000 gallons of water storage and a distribution network.

“One thing I love about Big Sur is that it’s a space for iconoclastic ideas,” Kronlund said. “But when you’re an individualist, you can lose sight of the greater good. With this project, I think we can bring people together for enlightened self-interest.

-Maddy Sperling

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