August 16, 2016 – Cheesemaker Charlie Cascio, owner of Sweetwater Farm, spent the second night of the Soberanes fire in his cheese cave, taking refuge while his home and land burned around him in the Palo Colorado canyon. But not before evacuating his goats and doing everything he could to save his farm. Two structures survived: his daughter Gaia’s home and a caretaker cabin.
His original plan had been to weather the fire overnight in his cheese cave along with his seven full-size Saanen goats, but Blaire and Lukie of Lucky Goat Family Farm called and offered to take his (lucky) goats in. The rescue mission was completed at around 10 pm, the goats arriving to their temporary digs nervously with their Swiss bells ringing.
Cascio himself still hadn’t left the mountain a week later, according to his daughter Gina. The last message she had received was that “he’s okay, and he’s trying to restore some water while staying in the caretaker cabin.” She mentions his gratefulness that the goats were rescued; as there might not have been enough air to go around with everyone in the cave.
Meanwhile, back at Lucky Goat, owner Lygia Chappellet says that Lukie has her hands full with all the extra goats to milk and feed. The added “girls” mean an additional two to three hours of work per day, but Chappellet reports that they are glad to have them and are hoping the fires do not break the El Sur line.
“So much of the time we can’t see anything because both the fog and smoke are so thick. We can hear chainsaws but don’t know how close it’s getting, then when the air clears we can see the fire line,” she said.
Helicopters have been flying right over the farm, which the initially startled goats have become accustomed to. Fortunately, the cheese has been unaffected by the trauma. In fact, the farm has so much cheese from the combined herds—dubbed Double Farm Artisan Cheese—that they’re delivering it to firefighters on the line.
Local chef Matt Millea, who’s put in extensive time at Ventana and Post Ranch Inn, lost the home he was renting to the fire as well. He lived there for 12 years, down the same dirt road as Cascio, yet a half-hour drive away—Big Sur is a place where people value their privacy. Millea says that living there gave him a place to “recharge: mentally, physically, and spiritually.”
“What’s made the anguish of this livable is that I know I never took a day for granted…it’s tempered my sorrow to be grateful for the years I had up there,” he said.
Millea first met Cascio not long after he moved to Palo Colorado Canyon. Cascio was stranded on the side of the road, smoke billowing from the hood of his broken-down truck. Millea asked if he needed a ride, and wouldn’t take Cascio’s no for an answer. Upon their arrival at the farm, he met Cascio’s wife (and goats).
When asked if he wanted to borrow Millea’s truck, Cascio replied, “But we just met.”
Millea responded, “But you’re Charlie Cascio!” (Cascio’s cheese is a favorite among local chefs.) A friendship was born.
The Soberanes fire continues to rage on, burning 76,000 acres and only 60% containment as of Tuesday morning. Yet, as Millea points out, the real takeaway here is what the community will do to come together and rebuild in the wake of the devastation. This is a community of strength, resilience, and resourcefulness.
A crowdfunding campaign has been organized to help Cascio rebuild. Of his belongings, he was only able to save a laptop and two bags of clothes—even his newly purchased truck was destroyed in the fire. More than $15,000 of the $20,000 target has been donated so far. Click here to donate.
Chef Tim Wood of Carmel Valley Ranch was one of the first to come to the aid of Charlie and Matt, cooking a benefit dinner at Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove on July 30 and acting as a hub for community donations of money and gifts. HGK has featured Cascio’s cheese in many of their dinners, including their fermentation dinner with Sandor Katz.
Elizabeth Hodges is a freelance writer and owner of Verdant California, based in South Santa Cruz County. During her free time, she enjoys keeping chickens, gardening and connecting with the local food community as communications chair for Slow Food Santa Cruz.