Edible Monterey Bay

Community Rallies Support as Wildfires Rage

August 25, 2020 – Awe at nature’s stunning lightning show turned to terror as wildfires sparked across the Monterey County last week. It was a rollercoaster of emotions. 

First, the River Fire threatened parts of the Salinas Valley, then the Carmel Fire began raging through the hills of Cachagua, tragically devouring homes in upper Carmel Valley, while to the south, the Dolan Fire began burning through the rolling hills south of Big Sur. Neighbors to the north watched in horror as the CZU Lightning Complex Fire tore through San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. 

More than 600 fires burned across California, incinerating more than 1 million acres, so far. A blanket of smoke covered the Central Coast and air quality plummeted. Anxiety increased last weekend, when evacuation advisories turned to mandatory orders and forecasts predicted more lightning and winds—stoking fears the fires would grow or, worse, lightning would ignite new blazes.

When Carmel Valley Village—home to more residents and businesses than the rolling hills of the Salinas Valley or Big Sur—fell under evacuation orders, many popular restaurants, winery tasting rooms and neighborhood hangouts were forced to close and expanding evacuation advisories put many on edge. A flurry of quick updates from local chefs, sommeliers and restaurant owners flooded Facebook. More than 20,000 Monterey County residents fled the fires, leaving the normally bustling Carmel Valley Village a ghost town.

Thankfully, the worst weather skipped the Central Coast, containment grew and many evacuation orders were lifted on Monday—albeit tinged with unease as residents began to assess damage amid reminders the fires still burn. As of Tuesday morning, the River Fire had burned 48,424 acres and was 33% contained, the Carmel Fire had burned 6,695 acres and was 30% contained, and the Dolan Fire had burned 20,213 acres and was 15% contained. 

Tess Arthur and chef Todd Fisher feed evacuees in Carmel Valley (photo: Patrick Tregenza)

Throughout this harrowing ordeal, another emotion has swelled within the hearts of local residents—empathy. 

There’s been outpouring of support and solidarity for evacuees displaced by the fires and those who have lost their homes to flames.

Some local residents opened their homes to shelter those displaced by this weekend’s evacuation orders, and others arranged housing and care for pets and livestock. Community groups gathered food and supplies for both evacuees and firefighters, while others rallied attention for essential workers and their families who continued to work despite hazardous conditions from heat and smoke.

Local restaurants and chefs—consummate hosts, of course—have stepped up to offer a helping hand, despite their resources being stretched to the limit by the coronavirus pandemic.

A traveling fire crew from San Bernardino enjoys the “love feast” from Happy Girl Kitchen (photo: Michelle Magdalena)

On Sunday evening, Happy Girl Kitchen served a nourishing “love feast” for 100 fire victims—even as owners Jordan and Todd Champagne faced evacuations from the Carmel Fire.

Using ingredients donated by Live Earth Farm and Watsonville Coast Produce, the Pacific Grove cafe prepared a meal of chickpeas with spinach in a fresh dry-farmed tomato sauce, vegetable fried rice, arugula salad and pineapple halva—all served to-go given the current coronavirus restrictions. And the feast continues this week—Happy Girl Kitchen is donating lunches to the SPCA. (Email sales@happygirlkitchen.com if you’re able to help pack the launches and deliver them to SPCA staff.)

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Julia’s Vegetarian Restaurant in Pacific Grove has been serving meals to those struggling during the pandemic. As part of the High Road Kitchens program—a partnership intended to provide jobs for restaurant workers while rewarding responsible restaurant owners—the restaurant offers food at a sliding scale for low-wage workers, healthcare workers, first responders and those in need. 

Support for fire evacuees was an easy pivot—those affected by the fire may order complimentary meals and locals looking to lend a hand for their neighbors in need can sponsor free meals. (Visit juliasveg.com for more information.)

Elsewhere, evacuees stayed caffeinated courtesy of free coffee from Bella Bee Coffee truck or Monterey’s Captain + Stoker. Some fleeing the fire found sweet relief with treats from local bakeries, like cookies donated by Sweet Reba’s for a community dinner at Carmel Middle School. Alvarado Street Brewery quenched the thirst of fire victims by canning purified water for evacuees.

There are of course many more examples of gastronomic generosity across Monterey County from businesses and even just individuals looking out for one another in a time of compounding crises. 

The fires made some Carmel Valley locals amateur restaurateurs.

When Tess Arthur—Carmel Unified School District School Board member—shared the first reports of families in need in Cachagua, the community sprang into action, quickly mobilizing to provide a hot meal for families affected by the fire. 

Together, they put together a pasta dinner for 100 people in just two hours. Ada Fisher enlisted her husband—Todd Fisher, vice president for culinary operations at the Folktale Group—who lent his epicurean expertise to help the team serve community suppers. A partnership with This Club Saves Lives at Carmel High has made simple toiletries available to evacuees.

When evacuation advisories turned to mandatory orders over the weekend, operations moved to Carmel Middle School. The new location is alongside a small Red Cross shelter and more accessible for families who have migrated from the valley onto the Monterey Peninsula. For now, the group has planned to provide hot meals through Tuesday, August 25.

Many businesses are hosting donation drives for fire victims, especially those who lost their homes and will need not just food, but clothes, supplies and more as they rebuild. Messages about donation boxes and tip jars now pepper social media accounts for restaurants and businesses across the county.

All In Monterey—a volunteer group started by Tanya Kosta that debuted earlier this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic—organized weekend donation drives at Seaside High School that featured food courtesy of A Taste of Elegance Catering, Allegro, Coffee Mia, Kona Jerry’s, PigWizard, Red’s Donuts, Rosine’s, Starbucks, Terry’s Lounge, The Breakfast Club and more.

All In Monterey’s reach extends to the isolated communities of Big Sur too. Partnering with Elsa Rivera—chief organizer for the Big Sur Food & Wine festival—the group has supplied truckloads of supplies like water, bread, produce and toiletries down the coast.

The group’s donation drives will continue as long as there’s need—not just for those affected by the wildfires, but the pandemic too. Email all.in.monterey@gmail.com to learn how you can help.

The view from the Salinas Valley

Communities on the Central Coast are looking out for the most vulnerable—a viral post from Flor Martinez turned a national spotlight toward the farmworkers in the fields adjacent to the River Fire.Despite intense heat and the cloud of toxic ash and smoke overhead, workers continued harvesting fruits and vegetables in the fields outside Salinas and throughout southern Monterey County.

The community has also rallied to collect supplies for the families of farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented and unable to benefit from government relief during the pandemic. School supplies have been in highest demand and a coalition of community groups—including Agents of Change 831U.N.I.D.O.S. and more—organized from the South Bay to Salinas to stock and distribute 2,000 backpacks full of school supplies to farmworkers in Salinas and Greenfield this weekend.

Support is pouring in from the San Francisco Bay Area too, with food truck La Santa Torta driving down from the East Bay to partner with farms in Watsonville, Salinas and Gonzales to feed workers for free this past Monday.

Across the county, communities are showing support for other essential workers—firefighters.

Chef Brandon Miller delivers meals to first responders

Brandon Miller—executive chef for il grillo and partner in The Chef’s Stash gourmet grocery service—got to work cooking food for firefighters. He fired up the kitchen at il grillo—temporarily closed during the coronavirus pandemic—and cooked up a dinner of pasta bolognese, Caesar salad and dessert to serve those on the front lines on Saturday evening. He was back again early Sunday morning to cook breakfast. (As a reminder, for health and safety, firefighters can only accept food donations from approved professional kitchens.)

Passionfish shared a story of hope of a generous neighbor who spotted Daly City firefighters coming for dinner and paid for their meal. Locals are especially grateful for the volunteer fire brigades in Big Sur and Cachagua. Many eateries are showing their gratitude to both local firefighters and those recruited from out of town to battle the blazes. Newly open Elroy’s Fine Foods is offering a $20 credit to active firefighters and Jerome’s Carmel Valley Market established a fund to pay for food for firefighters. Parker-Lusseau Pastries has packed up lunch for firefighters and PigWizard’s Jonathan Roberts donated food to those battling the Dolan Fire in Big Sur.

This weekend, Casas De Humo Barbecue partners with Guadalajara Bakery in Salinas for a burger pop-up on Sunday, August 30, with proceeds supporting local firefighters. The pop-up features a pair of brisket burgers available from 11:00 until sold out. $2 from every burger sale will go towards purchasing gift cards for Monterey County firefighters to buy supplies and essentials. (Donations can also be made directly via Venmo.)

As firefighters extinguish the flames, the community support burns brighter than ever.

If you’d like to support wildfire recovery efforts, visit the Monterey County Community Resilience Program.

Donate money to the Monterey County Fire Relief Fund by the Community Foundation for Monterey County or donate to the Food Bank for Monterey County.

Donate supplies at All In Monterey’s donation center at Seaside High School (2200 Noche Buena Street, Seaside), open 10am and 6pm.

Join All In Monterey Facebook group or visit Community Builders of Monterey County for more volunteer opportunities.