A California Clan Stages a Desperate Last Stand to Save Its Homes from a Raging Forest Fire

UPDATED 07/29/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/29/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

For 10 days wind-whipped forest fires rampaged across 11 parched Western states, consuming more than one million acres and destroying at least 170 homes. With the summer fire season begun a month earlier than usual, more than 17,000 fire fighters, the largest force in U.S. history, were deployed to battle the blazes. Worst hit was California, where thousands fled threatened homes in communities from San Diego to San Jose. But some, like the Harlan clan in the hills above South Coast Big Sur, stayed behind, risking their lives to defend their homes from the inferno. Great-grand-father Wilbur Harlan and his wife, Ada, homesteaded their mountain in 1887, and descendants down to the fifth generation are still bound to the land by ties that at times defy reason. On July 6, a fire sparked by an electrical storm raced across the chaparral toward the 500 mountain acres where 16 Harlans live in seven scattered homes, scratching out a living by raising pigs, cattle, barley and potatoes. Risking their lives to save the family heritage, rancher Nolan Harlan and second cousin John Harlan took the high ground and fought off the flames. This is their story.

Saturday, July 6

Nolan Harlan, 28, was in the kitchen canning apricots at 3 p.m. when the first lightning bolt zapped down from the roiling storm clouds. The sight made him abruptly set aside his mason jars and head down from his redwood home on the mountainside for Lucia Lodge, a cluster of guest cottages owned by Harlans, where he used the pay phone to warn friends. A major electrical storm clearly was in the offing, and Nolan knew the surrounding forests were primed to burn. Down at the lodge, Nolan's live-in girlfriend, Debi Zachary, 29, a waitress, stepped out to scan the darkening sky. Waiter Tom Khachatourian came up beside her. "It smells like rain," he said. "That's not good," she replied quietly. "It means fire."

By 4:30 p.m. two acres of Rat Canyon were ablaze nine miles north of the Harlan holdings. Four hundred yards from Nolan's house, cousin John Harlan, 59, a former real estate lending expert with a bank, and his wife, Ruth, 61, a retired shipping clerk for Eastman Kodak, began planning the defense of their prized home. Only in 1980, after three years' labor, had they put the finishing touches on "Casa de Lucia," a three-bedroom, three-bath redwood house with a massive stone fireplace of local jasper and serpentine. John dismissed the idea of leaving. "I was determined we weren't going to lose the house," he says.

That evening, as dozens of fire fighters struggled to halt the roaring advance of the blaze, Nolan and Debi drove in their pickup to friend Katie Stock's house, where they could watch the fire's progress. Neighbor Ingrid May, whose house lay right in the fire's path, joined them. Says Debi: "I warned her she couldn't get hysterical or she'd have to leave, because we didn't want to get hysterical too."

Sunday, July 7

Before dawn, Ingrid and Roger May's house burned to the ground. At sunup, without having slept, Nolan and two friends went out to cut a firebreak five miles to the north. Professional fire fighters joined them by afternoon, but their efforts failed. "Before we could get it completed," says Nolan, "the wind came up and blew the fire right across it." At dusk, further gusts spurred the fire another two miles, and four more houses were gutted.

Monday, July 8

At dawn, after another sleepless night, Nolan and a friend began cutting a new break a half mile to the north of Nolan's house. At the same time John and son Keith, 33, co-manager of Lucia Lodge, began clearing a 40-foot radius of brush away from their homes. At 10 p.m. Debi, as the blaze rolled south, sadly concluded the fire could not be denied. With a friend's help she began to pack the belongings she could least bear to lose. It took all night. "I was just walking around in circles, trying to decide what meant most to me."

Tuesday, July 9

Early the next morning the fire appeared to have stalled at the bottom of Vincente Canyon, only three miles to the north. But then the flames leapt across and, sucked up by their own draft, raced for the ridge top, immediately threatening the four highest Harlan homes. An 80-year-old structure of hand-hewn redwood, occupied until her death by Aunt Lu Harlan, was perched on the lip of a canyon level with the tops of 150-foot redwoods. Figuring the fire would sweep down from the north, Nolan and two helpers labored on yet another break to cut it off. Instead, the flames swept in on the Harlan land from the northwest flank.

"It was awesome when it cleared the top," says John. "Once it crested the ridge and started down, it was like water running downhill." Terrified, Ruth told her husband she had to leave. "You hear about people going through things like this," she says, "and you think you understand how they feel. But until you've been through it yourself, you can't possibly know. The fear—oh, the fear." Just after 3 p.m. Ruth and John embraced out in the yard, then she collected five grandchildren and drove to a friend's house to await the outcome. "I wouldn't have left and she knew it," says John.

Not a half hour later the fire was on them, three-fourths of a mile wide and 20 to 40 feet high. The wall of flames bore down on them with the sounds, said one observer, of "10,000 freight trains." Howling winds whipped up by the firestorm bowed trees a hundred yards ahead of its path. "When those redwoods crowned out," says Paul Gephart, a friend who stayed at Nolan's side, "they sent wads of fire as big as a pickup truck in the air and into the fields."

As flames ringed Nolan's house, he ran for the hose and dragged it onto his roof. "The house was steaming," he says. "It would dry out, and I'd keep going around and wetting it down." Friends called to him to run clear, but he ignored them. "In the first place, there was no way out really," he says. "But I didn't even think about it. I was just into saving my house."

Meanwhile, John was trying frantically to withstand the fire's onslaught on Aunt Lu's house, as spot fires ignited by flying embers consumed corral fences and outbuildings. Twice the house roof caught fire; twice John hosed down the flames. At 5:30 the fire burst into the nearby grove of redwoods. "They went off like Roman candles," he says. "Flames shot up them and ignited the cones, which exploded like rockets and rained down on the roof." Taking the brunt of the ember shower, Aunt Lu's house went in 45 minutes, but John's, just 50 yards away, was spared.

As flames passed over the metal pipe carrying water to Nolan's house, his hose began to spit boiling water. "I just kept the hose going until the water got too hot for my thumb to hold the nozzle," he says. By that time, his hand had scalded black.

Back down the mountain, Debi watched the advancing necklace of fire. For three hours there was no word of Nolan's fate. Then Debi's friend Katie was able to get through. "I discovered that as soon as the ground burned, you could walk on it," she says. "So after it burned I ran further up the road, and I couldn't believe it. There through the smoke was Nolan on the roof." The fire was out and, of the Harlans' seven homes, all but Auntie Lu's had survived.

In spite of the fire Nolan says he'll never leave the mountain. "This is the most beautiful place in the world. I don't care if it's tough. That's why there are so few people here." John, too, is showing the resiliency mountain life encourages. "Things will work out," he says. "They always have. If you come back in a year, provided we don't get an unusually wet winter, you'll see that new growth will come out of the ashes, and it will be even more beautiful than ever before."

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