Herald Masthead

Monterey, California
October 8, 2016

Soberanes Fire: A survivor’s story
in Palo Colorado

Theo Maehr looks at a windshield that was melted to the steering wheel of one of his two used cars that were burned when the Soberanes Fire passed through a storage area a few hundred yards from his home in Palo Colorado Canyon. (David Royal - Monterey Herald)

By Tommy Wright, Monterey Herald

A home that survived the Soberanes Fire is surrounded by a charred hillside in Palo Colorado Canyon. (David Royal - Monterey Herald)

Palo Colorado >> Thanks to a combination of preparation, hard work and luck, Theo Maehr’s house along a dirt road remains intact atop a ridge surrounded by trees, grass and bushes blackened by the Soberanes Fire.

The blaze tore through the Palo Colorado Canyon in its early stages, causing massive devastation. It destroyed 57 homes and 11 outbuildings. In the two months since residents were allowed to return to the area, the community has come together to share stories and start the rebuilding process.

After the fire started July 22 in Garrapata State Park from an illegal, unattended campfire, it spread into Palo Colorado the following day.

“I stopped it from going further,” Maehr said. “I think it would have taken my house out and it would have just kept going up the ridge at a pretty rapid pace that first night if I hadn’t stayed.”

The Monterey County Sheriff’s Office issued an evacuation order for Palo Colorado the night the fire broke out. While some residents headed down to a Red Cross shelter at Carmel Middle School, Maehr stayed behind to defend his property. He credits the way he built his home and the defensible space he kept around the house as part of the reason it still stands.

“Because of all the brush clearing that I’ve done, when it got onto my land it just slowed way down,” Maehr said. “It was like crawling, the movement of the fire, you could just watch it slowly creeping through the leaves. Sometimes it would hit a manzanita bush or a chamise and it would flare up a bit, but it was just creeping. It allowed me to work a huge line of the fire.”

Maehr, who’s spent time volunteering with the Mid-Coast Fire Brigade, said he tended 100 to 150 yards of fire all night with his shovel before hosing everything down. He asked himself why he decided to stay behind before jumping into action.

“On Saturday night, there was no way I was getting down the mountain,” Maehr said. “I was like trapped up here.”

He says Cal Fire crews arrived near his home the morning of July 24. Firefighters did backburns to try and protect Maehr’s home and other structures in the area.

Maehr, who recently authored a children’s book and has also spent time as an artist and teacher, thinks the damage would have been much worse to his property if he didn’t stay behind during the early days of the fire. During that time his son spotted fire atop their barn, but they managed to put it out.

“An ember must have gotten into the gutters, where I had not cleared the leaves out of the gutters,” he said. “He’s looking down there like, ‘Dad! There’s fire in the barn!’ ”

They grabbed a ladder and quickly scooped the leaves from the gutter and spread the fire out to save the barn. Maehr’s garden suffered damage during the fire and two old cars he used for parts burned so badly the windshields melted onto the steering wheels. But damage to Maehr’s property appeared minimal, especially in comparison to his neighbors who lost their homes.

“For me, I lost my storage yard and that was basically the worst of it,” Maehr said.

Maehr hunkered down in his cold room, which looks like a bunker and is used for storing food and wood slabs he makes furniture out of, with his son to stay safe five days after the fire started.

“It was horribly smoky and he and I came in here and I have scuba tanks in here and we opened up one of the scuba tanks,” he said. “It was like being in a hotel room!”

While the fire creeped and crawled near Maehr’s home, he said the blaze picked up in intensity nearby.

“A house started on fire and the flames were still 100 yards away,” Maehr said. “So the heat was so intense that it just ignited.”

Some of Maehr’s neighbors remained in their homes during the entire evacuation order. But as the fire went on, and the air got smokier, Maehr started feeling ill. After a week, he left his home and stayed with a friend in Carmel.

“My fever just kept climbing and my head was all messed up because of all that smoke inhalation. It was gnarly,” he said.

Maehr said his fever got to 103.2 degrees before breaking a few days after leaving Palo Colorado.

Maehr’s horses made it out of the area a few days prior. He drove them out in his trailer and the SPCA for Monterey County took care of them until Maehr could bring them back home. He said the horses never panicked during the blaze.

“There’s a deep wall of fire and they’re just standing, watching,” he said. “I was pretty impressed with them.”

After wild animals fled the area in the early days of the fire, residents in the area have seen deer and other animals returning to some of the islands of unburned land. Maehr said his garden and orchards provide food for wildlife in the area.

“We are the stewards, we can actually enhance the environment for wildlife,” he said. “I’m convinced because I’ve done it for the 10 years I’ve lived up here. I’ve watched wildlife populations increase dramatically because of divvying water out.”

Many of the madrone and manzanita trees in the burned area near Maehr’s home appeared dead but late in September you could also find new growth sprouting.

“The (tree) tops are popping green out,” Maehr said. “This is really exciting, a lot of trees are coming back.”

While he sees living in the wilderness as a calculated risk, Maehr advocates intelligent building of homes in areas prone to wildfires. He built his home using fireproof materials, put in a cement foundation so embers can’t get under the house and he created a makeshift shelter, among other steps.

While some of his neighbors will be completely rebuilding their homes, Maehr said it shouldn’t be as hard for him to recover. He thinks he may have to remove some dead trees from his property to limit the risk of any future fires approaching his home. He’s also looking forward to tending his garden back to where it was before the fire.

While Maehr will need to dispose of the burned cars and some of the other things he lost in the fire, he’s letting some of his neighbors who lost their homes take priority.

A few dozen volunteers from Christian Aid Ministries have been helping out in the area every weekend recently, helping clean up property damaged by the fire and bringing the waste to Dumpsters set up in the area.

“They came in here and did all this work,” said Jerry Forbes, a Palo Colorado resident. “You have no idea how much labor they did.”

Forbes lost his home five days into the fire and said it was the last of 57 homes the blaze destroyed. He said the volunteers were the sweetest people who never complained about the hard work.

“They didn’t open up the road, they weren’t able to do it, so they had to literally wheelbarrow everything out,” Forbes said.

Maehr also praised the outside help of the volunteers as well as donations to the Coast Property Owners Association, which has dispersed the funds to help residents in the area recover. Maehr said the generosity from within the community has also been incredible.

Teresa Fife, who lives on the other side of Palo Colorado Canyon from Maehr, said the Mid-Coast Fire Brigade and many others in the area have been pitching in to help their neighbors get back to normal.

“We have a little neighborhood list that people can email and put out (requests for help), like one of our neighbors said ‘We need somebody to schlep the plywood. Is anybody available?’ ” she said.

Fife stayed behind to protect her home and while her house was spared, she said the experience was “mind blowing and very numbing.”

Although the recovery is well underway, Fife said the fire brigade extinguished a burning redwood in the past couple of weeks along Green Ridge and Maehr said he’s seen flames near Long Ridge.

“At this point you just kind of go, ‘Eh, there’s a little fire over there,’ ” Maehr said with a smile, because the flames no longer pose much of a threat. “It’s all burned.”

Fife and Maehr said they were both happy with how community members came together to support one another.

“That’s what the community needs more than anything else is positivity,” Maehr said.

Tommy Wright covers crime and breaking news in Monterey County. Reach him at 831-726-4375, twright@montereyherald.com or follow Tommy on Twitter: @wrightscribe.

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