Big Sur Pulls Together Through COVID-19, Wildfire, Now Highway Closure
The Big Sur community finds itself in yet another hardship now that a southern coast section of Highway 1 is closed. This hardship comes after a major wildfire last summer, the storm and debris flows last week and the ongoing pandemic.
Kirk Gafill sits in his office at Nepenthe in Big Sur. He’s general manager of the restaurant, which is perched on a cliffside with spectacular views of the churning blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.
“It has a dining room that was designed by an architect who was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, so very expensive windows,” Gafill said. “Very reminiscent of something one might find in a Mediterranean climate.”
Over Zoom he says the sun is shining there, a stark contrast to last week’s stormy skies. But the fallout from that intense rain and wind storm isn’t going away anytime soon. A chunk of Highway 1 washed out roughly 15 miles south of Nepenthe, making the well-known coastal road trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco impossible.
Gafill is also president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce. He expects a more extreme impact on businesses south of the closure and a moderate impact on those north, where Nepenthe and the town of Big Sur are located. He says two-thirds of their customers come from the north and then return that way.
For visitors, the beautiful beaches and mountains are a sight to see. But for residents, living in Big Sur can be tough. The last few years have been particularly challenging. There was the Soberanes Fire in 2016, a bridge collapse and massive mudslide that landlocked businesses and residents in 2017, and then…
“2020 - COVID. And of course the Dolan Fire. And now this road failure. It's really going to test the financial resources of the business owners and our employees,” said Gafill.
Gafill said he hasn't heard anyone say they're ready to throw in the towel yet and he's optimistic the economy will recover this year.
"We're still a very strong, vital community," he said. "We're going to get through this."
As for the highway closure, that poses an uncertain outlook. Caltrans is still assessing the damage. Kevin Drabinski with Caltrans likened the repair to a major renovation.
“If you can imagine taking your kitchen down to the studs and you'd have to make choices on cabinets, lighting, plumbing, utilities, flooring, then you'd be able to develop a budget for that," he said. “And if everything lined up with your work crews, you'd be able to have a timeline for when the work might be accomplished.”
The rain storm set off a debris flow from the burn scar of last summer’s Dolan Fire, sending water, tree trunks and boulders down the hillside. It overwhelmed the drainage infrastructure at the site washing out the highway. Now there’s a 150-foot chasm -- both lanes are gone. It looks like someone used their hand to dig into a chocolate cake.
To make matters worse, the main east-west corridor, Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, which connects Highway 1 to Highway 101, is closed due to extensive damage from the Dolan fire and the winter storm.
Beyond local businesses, tourists and residents, local emergency responders are also affected. Marcus Foster, a captain with Big Sur Fire, says it could take an ambulance extra time to reach someone south of the highway closure.
“Any incidents, whether it's a traffic accident or a cliff rescue. We get a lot of hang gliders up there in that area. We get surfers,” said Foster.
Big Sur Fire is a volunteer organization that covers a 60-mile stretch of the coastline. Their main station and most personnel are located north of the closure. So, last weekend, some of the firefighters shuttled all the way around to Highway 101, cut across Highway 46 and then came up from Cambria to bring more equipment down to their station (Station 3) on the south coast. Foster said they will likely be relying on other agencies for assistance if something happens in that remote area.
Despite the challenges, he says living in Big Sur is worth it.
“One of the main reasons I volunteer on the fire department is because I love this area. I love this community. Everybody knows everybody and will help out neighbors,” said Foster.
Foster added it’s just an incredible life, but it’s a hard life sometimes.