Retired professor and botanist Durand Roburds Miller, known as “Doc,” has thrived in the remote wilderness in the shadow of Pine Mountain for 35 years. His routine includes researching the ecology of his natural flora and fauna.
“From the day I moved up there in 1980, I have kept a running record of all the flora,” he said.
He also records weather patterns, takes long hikes in search of new flora and studiously observes his wildlife neighbors
Those neighbors include mountain lions, jays and other feathered friends, foxes, squirrels, deer, a bear (which once broke into his cabin) and the occasional California condor riding the thermals with its 9.5-foot wingspan — or roosting in tall Ponderosa pine trees.
Unluckily for Miller, the Chimney Fire left his two-story cabin in ruins.
I had an association with the congenial Miller through his leadership in identifying more than 450 plant species each year for the annual Cambria Wildflower Show. So on Thursday, Oct. 13, I made a pilgrimage to Miller’s isolated property, a half-hour’s drive up curvy, hilly San Simeon Creek Road to a locked gate. Miller met me there, and we rode another 20 minutes or so in his ATV through a steep and winding, ash-strewn landscape to his 50-acre site.
Once at Miller’s property, nearly 3,000 feet above sea level, I could see Nacimiento Lake in the hazy distance about 10 miles to the east. The view inspired awe, albeit the slate gray burned-out mountains and valleys produced an eerie sight.
It was as though a nuclear winter hideously despoiled the landscape. The inferno created what Miller calls a “hard burn”: virtually nothing was left but ash and char. However, many of the trees around Miller’s property survived despite being scorched.
In our conversation, Miller recounted the steps he took as the fire moved west across the land toward him. Blackened pieces of twisted steel and aluminum are stacked up near the cabin site, evidence that he’s begun the cleanup phase.
After the fire broke out near Nacimiento Lake on Saturday, Aug. 13, Miller watched and worried as the menacing flames and plumes of smoke crept closer each day. As the fire approached, he was thinking, “How long can I stay? Where’s my reference point?
“The recognition became full as it came over two ridgelines simultaneously, and I could see it skunking over the top. When it got to that drainage section down below,” he said, pointing, eastward, “that was the indicator: I can’t stay. I had a real good exit as long as I did it early enough.”
He abandoned his property at 4 p.m. Aug. 18. He had applied a fire retardant gel to his cabin, and he believed the steel doors and stucco outer walls would protect his home.
Miller returned to his cabin the next day, and to his astonishment, while the two hunting cabins in the woods above his home were torched, “My cabin was still here. All right!” he exclaimed. So he hosed down his cabin, using his spring-fed water source, used up his remaining retardant and left again.
“Some of the fire had gone past me, and when I went away I thought, ‘Hey, this is working. I’m going to make it.’ ”
Then again, the following day, Aug. 20, he returned to discover his cabin was burned-out wreckage.
“It didn’t make it.”
The walls did what they were supposed to do — suppress fire. But the flames entered through the windows, which were closed with aluminum shutters, and doors. The fire burned the superstructure and all the wood inside. The building collapsed on itself because it lost its character.
Durand “Doc” Miller
Mother Nature, his partner in the wilderness for those 35 years, had dealt him a losing hand.
Miller lost 90 percent of his personal possessions in the fire. That included years of painstaking weather records that had regional historical value. He was heartbroken. Moreover, he was deeply disillusioned because he had built his cabin and two other smaller buildings to resist fire.
“The walls did what they were supposed to do — suppress fire. But the flames entered through the windows, which were closed with aluminum shutters, and doors. The fire burned the superstructure and all the wood inside. The building collapsed on itself because it lost its character,” Miller explained.
“The fire got so hot it superheated the steel door, acting like a frying pan, and transferred the heat to set the wood inside on fire. The disappointment was huge. I’ve done all I could to make this good.”
Miller believes the fire-suppression approach around Pine Mountain was reckless overkill.
“The whole concept of suppression as opposed to management — they don’t seem to have another page in their playbook,” he stated, as he spread bird seed for the Stellar’s jays.
The exaggerated use of bulldozers in clearing large swaths of forested land has left “huge human scars that are far slower in recovery than the natural scars caused by fire.”
Up on the ridge a couple of hundred yards above Miller’s cabin site, there was a “deliberate effort” by bulldozer operators to “scar the land, to create what they call a ‘fire break for the future.’ But that level of rude impact is personally devastating,” he asserted.
Miller spoke to a forester about the damage done to the woodlands vis-a-vis clear-cutting healthy trees and creating football-field-size sections of denuded land with bulldozers. The botanist was told, “They have wanted for years to create a firebreak between inland and the coast.”
The fire-suppression crews did not have to ask permission to bulldoze massive amounts of the forest in response to the threat of fire, but, Miller added, “They beat the heck out of the environment in the process.”
That said, Miller believes that firefighters “are noble individuals, all of them. They’re very good folks. They just need to come at nature a different way. They need a new game plan.”
On the subject of game plans, Miller will not rebuild his cabin on its current footprint. He plans to build a new cabin down below his pistachio orchard (which he hopes will produce notwithstanding the blaze). Now that he is well past the shock of his loss, his field of study has moved him to a higher demonstrative plane.
Ever the passionate botanist and natural world devotee, he is eager to see which plant species pops up first through the scorched earth. Perhaps he’ll add new species to the 762 he has previously catalogued over the nine square miles surrounding his pastoral property.
Freelance journalist and Cambria resident John FitzRandolph’s column appears biweekly and is special to The Cambrian. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.