Dispatches From the Road: Fleeing a Wildfire on the California Coast

Stillwater Cove Regional Park, California. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

The masked park ranger walked past and out of the cove, leaving me alone with the dog on a sun-splattered beach.

Normally having a stunning piece of the California coast to myself on a warm summer day would be a boon. Today was different.

That morning the same ranger had informed me our campground might be evacuated if the wind shifted and sent a fire a few miles to the south — sparked by a recent lightning storm — in our direction.

When I said I planned on hiking much of the day, she told me to keep an eye on the sky and return if it turned smoky. She wasn’t too worried.

Probably a bit overcautious given the sky of uninterrupted blue all around Stillwater Cove Regional Park, and the forecast predicting the wind would continue blowing in from the ocean, I did not begrudge them.

Necessary at all times in a fire-prone state with tinder-dry vegetation built up in many areas through more than a century of misguided policy dictating every fire must be put out and every structure saved, the death of 85 in an inferno that destroyed much of the town of Paradise in 2018 reinforced the need for vigilance.

Like Paradise, there is only one way out of Stillwater Cove, the slow, winding two-lane Route 1, and authorities had closed the road a few miles south of the park due to the fire.

One accident or disabled car heading north could stop and strand evacuees in the path of a raging inferno.

Any lingering concerns disappeared when we set foot on what is called the dead-end trail in a forest painted with shafts of afternoon sun.

Sweating in short order, I stripped off my sweatshirt, poured a bit of water for Klaus the dog, then a bit more, only to realize I had little left for myself. I did have a can of beer in my backpack. Not what I needed now.

We hiked up, up, up. After a while I became certain every corner would reveal the fence at the edge of park, but no, just the next hill.

Perhaps we should have tackled this trail before a morning cliffside hike and a detour to a one-room schoolhouse carted to the park from nearby Fort Ross for preservation.

Visions of enjoying the beer at the picturesque cove far below eventually defeated my irrational need to finish the trail. We turned around.

Deep into a book and the can of beer, I looked up to see the same ranger who’d talked to me that morning in conversation with a couple. They pointed to bluffs at the far end of the cove where a family had headed earlier, stood up and walked out. The ranger moved on to three young people drinking beer. They too got up and left. She called out for the family, then approached me. I waved. Apparently still looking for the family, she didn’t see me.

Klaus the dog rests in the shade of a rock at Stillwater Cove Regional Park, California. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

Figuring the evacuation order must have come, and if not, my beer can was empty, I set out for the campground where a fellow who had chatted me up at every opportunity talked to a male ranger.

“Let’s go with that then, there is a sincere belief we need to do this,” I heard the ranger say.

“So are we getting the boot?” I asked while petting the man’s dog, who had come to say hi to Klaus.

“Mixed signals,” his female companion replied.

“Sorry, but we have to go,” he said, picking up the pooch and putting him in their van.

“We have a dinner reservation at 6,” she declared. “We’re not going anywhere.”

The dog immediately jumped out of the car and ran back. The man grabbed him. “Again, sorry, but we need to go,” he grumbled.

I told them to enjoy their dinner and approached the ranger.

“OK but it’s going to be a while,” a man with thick-rimmed glasses and a shaggy gray beard said. “We just sat down to dinner.”

“No problem,” the ranger replied. “Take your time.”

“I guess that answers my question,” I said.

“Are you camping here?” he asked.

“Yeah, so we need to leave, eh?”

“If you don’t mind, yes. We’re concerned the wind might shift and come this way.”

Evacuated campers could stay in the day-use lot at Gualala Regional Park a little over 20 miles to the north, he told me. I knew the area, having written about a hiking trip I took during the time of year it’s a fishing camp.

I looked up at the sky. Still a perfect blue, and the slight wind hadn’t changed direction.

Not convinced evacuation was necessary, I was thankful they issued it now in the early evening instead of late at night or the wee hours of morning. I’d already had to skedaddle from an approaching inferno around dawn once, an experience I’d rather not repeat.

Cliffs at Stillwater Cove Regional Park, California. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

Every other camper was gone and all sites empty by the time I left save the one belonging to the couple out to dinner and that of the camp host, though she was packing up too.

Not many cars on the road heading north, and almost none south, I pulled over when the sound of incoming text messages told me I had reception. Since going south wasn’t an option, I’d have to drive 60 miles north before heading east, adding two hours to a trip that normally takes two and a half, getting me home around 10:30 at night, if I didn’t stop. A separate fire raged near a road I would have to take. Though open, the ranger at Stillwater had said it was a mess.

I wasn’t convinced I wanted to go home anyway. The air would likely be smoke choked, the heat intense and according to alerts from Pacific Gas & Electric my house had lost power multiple times over the past few days.

Gualala it was then for the night, after which I could continue north to cool Fort Bragg, untouched by fires or smoke. Late at night I checked online, but the places that accepted online reservations were sold out. The one place I called that only accepted phone reservations was closed for the day.

Certain I would spend at least the next week on the coast I went to bed.

Maybe it was the dog barking and the man yelling outside the camper soon after first light, the realization I’d left Klaus’ flea medicine at home (on purpose to make sure I’d come back to civilization on schedule) or because I would need to find a laundromat, I left Gualala not sure what I would do.

Past miles of dramatic cliffs, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them towns and ranches, I put on my blinker and turned onto the road that would return me to a cauldron of smoke and fire.

Near the junction with the 101 freeway more than 50 miles inland dark gray clouds marked the western sky. Further south traffic increased but the air quality improved, until I approached home. The sky grew dark.

I could taste smoke from a fire raging behind nearby Mt. Diablo as I pulled into the driveway.

Maybe I should have kept going, I thought, not for the first time.

But at least now I could wash my clothes and give the dog his medicine.

The relatively short drive from Gualala to the turnoff was one of the few stretches of Route 1 I hadn’t driven before. I’m now determined to fill in the gaps on the picturesque road spanning 656 miles from Dana Point in Southern California to the junction with the 101 beyond Fort Bragg.

And I have unfinished business with the dead-end trail.

All of which assumes 2020 doesn’t spring another surprise. Be it pandemic, protests, fires caused by twice-in-a-generation dry lightning storms, smoke or intense heat, this year is full of them.

But like so many embers pushed by wind, we can do little but choose how we react to the vagaries of the moment.

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