Fire at Sand Dollar Beach


From Susan Perry of Pacific Valley School:

“I had just signed out from work at 11:35pm, was walking through the school’s K room to use the b-room b4 my long drive home, and saw huge, tall, flames just to the right of my view of the school’s wooden fence enclosed recycling yard.  I couldn’t tell if the fire was on the east or west side of the highway, but immediately ran down to the lower buildings to confirm that no one was aware of the fire, or at least not trying to extinguish it.  On the way down there I was able to see that it was across the highway and appeared to be right by the entrance to the Sand Dollar day use parking area, possibly under or in the cypress trees by the gate.

I ran to Carl’s room (the southern-most lower classroom, where he sleeps), banging on his door as I unlocked it and woke him up with my laryngitis frog throat screaming as loud as I could to wake up and call 911 so I could run to the office and call Joel & Brooke and then round up our school’s fire hoses.  I ran up the ramp while screaming across the creek to wake up Parks Management staff.  I then ran around looking everywhere I could think to look for those hoses, but never found them.

I gave up looking for the hoses and ran back towards the fire just as several trucks with Parks Management staff pulled up outside the day use parking area.  It was then that I could see that the lot’s gate shack was totally engulfed and that there were no trees or bushes involved, just the structure.  One staff member told me that she had locked the gate shack earlier in the evening, after placing the American flag that hangs outside the shack during the day, inside it for the night.  […It appears that] the fire …[may have been] started intentionally because the flag had been removed from the shack before the fire started and placed into the hole in the top of an orange traffic cone 15 to 20 feet away from the shack.

Brooke and Joel showed up at the fire a few minutes after I had returned from the office with my phone so I could take some pictures.  It was then that someone noticed that the large wooden Parks Management sign had been cut free from its posts near the shack and removed, perhaps tossed into the shack to be burned.

Two off duty USFS staff members then showed up in their personal vehicles, still in PJ’s, to attack the fire with the shovels that Brooke & Joel and thought to bring with them.  The USFS staff said that, even though Carl had reported our physical address to 911 and gave them the name of the school and the Sand Dollar Day Use Area, they never got a call from anyone.  They only learned of the fire when a tourist driving by saw the fire and drove into the Pacific Valley USFS Station and woke them up to report the fire in person.   They first called Monterey Dispatch and then their fire captain, who is out of town, and he told them not to use the engine but to call him if the fire threatened to head toward wildland (to the east) and he would return for duty, and to command the engine.  Monterey dispatch apparently had not called out anyone to respond and asked the USFS guys who they should contact to respond to the fire.  (DUH!)  “Call Big Sur Fire” was their response to the dispatch person, of course.

At some point, while we watched the fire, Joel claimed that he heard what sounded like someone shooting a 22 to the north of us, somewhere along the cliffs or the fields along the bluffs.

Obviously, we were lucky with this one, but why didn’t dispatch place a call out?  Why couldn’t I find the school fire hoses?  What will we do on the south coast if no one responds to a wild fire that starts here?  Thank you to Brook, Joel, Caleb and Mike Handy (I think it’s him, maybe Luke?) for getting training to fill that gap, soon, I hope!

Feel free to share this accounting of this event with whomever you wish, wherever it needs to be shared.


Susan Perry, Administrative Assistant

Big Sur Unified School District & Pacific Valley School

Here is this morning’s photo by Paolo Gonzalez:





14 thoughts on “Fire at Sand Dollar Beach

  1. Lots to unpack in Susan’s post. As residents in Big Sur, we know, depending on where you live, that we are pretty much on our own when it comes to fire. But one would think that the USFS would be better prepared to protect its property.

  2. Its been a long while since I have had to deal with fire and the school down there, but my first question is, When you call 911 on an 805 number does it still go to SLO county? If you want to call the 911 dispatch in Monterey, there is a special number to do that. It should be in the disaster Plan at the school.
    The non emergency number used to be 1 (831) 755-5111, maybe a call there would be able to verify what the direct to dispatch number is now, it used to be 1 (831) 755-5111. The other method is to call 911 and ask to transfer to Monterey.

  3. Kimball, I think you’re right in that since our phones are in the 805 area code (south of Lucia or Limekiln, I’m not sure which), goes to SLO dispatch. We have to ask to be transferred to Monterey dispatch and hopefully they know where we’re located and know to call out Big Sur Fire. Sounds like we need a “deeper” fire drill at the school besides the fire extinguishers and evacuating to the lawn. We’ll have to locate those hoses and know the hook ups, but in this instance that wouldn’t have helped, considering the distance across to Sand Dollar.

    I don’t understand why USFS didn’t show up in their truck. It wouldn’t have helped save the kiosk but certainly the H2O was needed to cool the coals and keep a secondary fire from happening if sparks blew up from a wind.

    Kudos to Brooke and Joel for having shovels and responding even when they haven’t gone through much of the training. We’re lucky to have them, Mike and Caleb on our end of things!

    Next question: does Parks Mgmt have hose hook ups at Sand Dollar? With all the BBQ pits and trees that may be a good idea. I think they stopped the water flow in their spigots at Sand Dollar and Kirk Creek years ago. I never understood why. This was a good “training” and luckily it was just their kiosk. I sure hope they actually find the arsonist, this should not be taken lightly just because it was a kiosk. It’s ARSON!

    Also, every entity should look at this incident and see where the failures were and how it can go better the next time.

    I came back from a town trip last night passing through that area around 10:30 or so and there were campers out on the bluffs across from PV Ctr with a large fire. I believe there were people in Sand Dollar at the time but I have no idea who and what kind of vehicle. Coming up Willow another one with a large fire. Now the wind is blowing furiously up here. I’m glad it wasn’t doing that last night.

  4. B came through a little earlier and said there were 2 cars in the parking lot at Sand Dollar and that there was a very large campfire at Cowabunger. I worried about embers when I saw how strongly the wind was blowing this am. Like you, I am glad we didn’t have these winds last night. Wouldn’t take much to set those eucalyptus ablaze.

  5. The 2 USFS guys who responded were told by their superior not to take the engine, I think because it needs a 3rd person and there wasn’t another staff member on site. If USFS was funded by the Feds the way it should or needs, more resources would be available. .But our politicians prefer to support the military.industry. If I had called 911 myself, I would have explained more clearly that we were in Monterey County. I tried to tell Carl to tell them that. However, I believe that years ago we provided our phone #s to a data base that was supposed to automatically display our 911 area when we call them. It shouldn’t have taken long for SLO dispatch to redirect to Monterey dispatch. There is no H2O at Sand Dollar. I believe that the reason it was shut off years ago were due to supply and quality/health safety. Possibly a result from the school installing its well in the same water table. If Gail D had been around last night, I wonder if she would have stretched her garden hoses across the road….

  6. I have seen a Monterey Sheriff dealing with roadside campers around the Post Office- – Deetjens area lately but no idea if this is ongoing and will be a routine patrol of whole coast. has anyone heard? and if it is are the Sheriffs authorized/tasked with campfire law enforcement as well? it’s crazy how many folks don’t have a clue but do have campfires.

  7. Before we did the well project, I had to do flow testing at the site just east of Hwy 1 where there was a spring and a 10,000 gallon water tank. That was the supply for Sand Dollar at the time. There was a pipeline along the road and it provided a flush toilet at Sand Dollar and several other outlets. My guess is that what with the health department requirements and the USFS funding and/or Parks Management…they did not want to bother with the testing needed. Also I don’t remember where we stored fire hose, although we had some and adapters and nozzles. If we had just a little more funding we would have had another fire hydrant just across from the first relocatable, but Chad said no. Does anyone remember that bog green water tank on the east side of the road before you get to Sand Dollar?

  8. Jim-
    I don’t recall the tank, maybe due to brush surrounding it? You mean north of Sand Dollar, North of school well? Last night, there was coiled hose in cabinet outside front of shop, but it didn’t have a nozzle or a connector. I recall DZ laying hoses out on brick patio in front of the office sometime in the last 6 months or so. They were in good shape then. Maybe Gordon knows where DZ put them. Or maybe they went walking….

  9. The campfire situation in the “dispersed” campsites along the access roads into the Forest on the South Coast is out of control. I brought the issue up to the new Forest Supervisor Kevin B. Elliott ( at the BSMAAC meeting on Friday and requested an immediate ban on campfires int the Los Padres Forest. We shall see if the happens any time soon. I don’t want to be at a meeting a year from now after the expenditure off millions of $ and the loss of a crew because we didn’t do anything to prevent a forest fire started by a careless (no common sense ?) camper. Everytime I come up the hill I pass campers preparing or having campfires. None of them have permits. If they did they would know you must have 10ft diameter clearance around fire pit ,a shovel and water. The last time a young man built his fire less then 2 ft from the brush line when winds were 20 gusting to 30. The best way residents can deal with the situation is to stop, write down their car license # and tell them if a fire is traced back to this location they will be held responsible for the entire cost to fight it and if anyone dies they may be prosecuted for manslaughter. That usually makes them reconsider lighting up a campfire. Also email Mr. Elliott and express your alarm and concern at the situation.

  10. I say take photos of the vehicle and license number and any people, if you can. I’ve been doing this for years. I keep them for a few days, and if nothing happens, I delete them, but then there is no room for error in transposing numbers or letters, and you have an exact make & model of vehicle, and if you are lucky, people. If it is already dark, this is more difficult, but license plate should still be visible.

  11. Just like democracy you have to remain vigilant to keep what you have. Just 1 fire tonight coming up Willow, albeit, under the pine tree. I hope they have H20. Luckily no wind-hope it keeps that way through the night. OMG it’s only the beginning-not even summer!

  12. It should be noted that anyone with private funding and the proper paperwork can operate a private security/environment firm with the authority to train and act at a higher competence than state or federal.

    It should also be noted many prescribed tax funded public “security” provisions should be observe and report since the are really poor at serve and protect.

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