LAST CHANCE, Calif. — Even for Last Chance, a rugged community in the forests above the Pacific Ocean where residents mill their own lumber and grow their own food, Tad Jones was particularly ascetic. He shunned electricity and plumbing. He once spent a year living in the hollow base of a redwood tree. For decades he took a vow of silence, scrawling in notebooks or on a tiny chalkboard when he had something to say.
If anyone could outsmart a wildfire, friends thought it would be Mr. Jones, 73. He had turned countless times to that same path, which leads to the Big Basin Redwoods State Park and its towering, 2,000-year-old trees. But the fire outmaneuvered him.
A week after Mr. Jones disappeared down a fiery road on the night of Aug. 18, smoke still poured from fissures in the sandy soil in the forests. Along a narrow path at the edge of a steep ravine, rays of sunshine pierced the smoky haze and shone on the scorched shell of the minivan that Mr. Jones had used to try to flee.
Mr. Jones’s escape was thwarted by a firestorm that ran so hot that it vaporized the windows of the van, melted the wheels and stripped all color from the surrounding forests, leaving acres of trees protruding from the ash-covered ground like so many burned matchsticks.
The fire in Last Chance — one of hundreds of lightning-ignited fires that burned across Northern California and killed seven people — leveled all but a few of the 100 homes scattered along the six miles of Last Chance Road. It devastated a back-to-the-land community established in the early 1970s that with its annual barn dance and its vegetable patches fed by spring water seemed to harken back to an earlier era.
One of Mr. Jones’s neighbors survived the fire by submerging himself in his backyard pond. Another neighbor — the last man who spoke to Mr. Jones alive — spent an entire night in a clearing dodging flying fireballs until dawn, when he walked across six miles of burning forest to safety.
For the last three decades, Mr. Jones, an Army veteran, lived in Last Chance in a wood cabin the size of a garden shed. He delighted in feeding the California quail, peacocks, blue jays — and foxes in the evenings.
“His companions were the animals,” said his sister, Jill Jones. “When you take a vow of silence — and he was pretty much a monk — what’s around you is critters, and other people are not necessarily going to understand who you are and what you’re doing.”
‘A rare bird’
As a young man in Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Jones was far from the hermit-like figure he became. When he enrolled at Ohio State University in 1964, he sported short hair, joined a fraternity and showed an interest in business. But he got kicked out of school as a result of a fraternity prank and was drafted into the Army soon after. He was posted to Germany at the height of the Vietnam War, which he strongly opposed, and his sister said he seemed to grow increasingly resentful of government.
When he returned, he became more of a loner. He finished his degree and moved with a woman he’d met in college to Sanibel Island in Florida, living in a school bus until an argument led to a breakup.
Mr. Jones made it to the West Coast, where his sister said he lived for at least a year in the base of a redwood tree. He also began to study under Baba Hari Dass, a monk who moved to California from India in 1971 and was silent for most of his life. Mr. Jones found a community at the Mount Madonna Center in the Santa Cruz mountains, a spiritual retreat and yoga center founded by Baba Hari Dass’s followers.
“Tad, for a fairly unique group of people, he was unique,” said Ward Maillard, who used to serve as president of the Mount Madonna Center and frequently corresponded with Mr. Jones. “He was a rare bird.”
Mr. Jones went silent, too, in the late 1970s. He told some people in letters that he had done so in part to tame his fierce temper.
The vow of silence calmed him, but it couldn’t fully suppress his anger.
“He could swear up and down on a piece of paper,” recalled Windy Dipa Rhoads, who considered Mr. Jones to be her godfather.
Ms. Rhoads recalled one instance when she saw Mr. Jones’s temper flare. Once, when she was about four, an extended family member slapped her for not sharing a toy with a little girl, leading Mr. Jones to leap out of a window, run over to the woman and backhand her across the face without uttering a word.
In the early 1980s, Mr. Jones moved to the small, A-frame cabin in Last Chance.
Up in the mountains, Mr. Jones spent much of his silent days feeding the animals, scattering food in myriad hiding places. He took monthly trips into Santa Cruz, often walking eight miles to the entrance of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, where he would catch a bus to town. In recent years, he had taken to catching a ride from a friend or neighbor, or renting a car once a month.
He got many of his supplies from General Feed & Seed Company, where he would ask for eight 50-pound bags of whole corn and eight bags of cracked corn, said Travis Ramos, an employee at the store. Much of the money he received from government benefits or occasional odd jobs seemed to be spent on feeding the animals.
“He kept part of the forest alive,” said Ms. Rhoads.
On his trips to town, he would sometimes tuck in his long gray beard when he worried it would make people suspicious of him — or on a windy day, when it would blow into his face.
Mr. Jones’s cabin had a large window that looked out into the woods. He had a small stove heated by firewood, and he slept on a camping mat on the floor. A few pictures hung on a shelf he had built against the wall, and he kept some perishable food in large, plastic trash cans outside that he watered down to keep them cool.
He was reclusive, but he kept close tabs on what was happening elsewhere. He subscribed to National Geographic, listened to the news on KGO — an A.M. radio station that reaches the mountains — and read The Santa Cruz Sentinel, frequently sending clippings of news articles or political cartoons to friends and relatives. Now and then, he wrote letters to the paper — musing about swallows, railing against rising bus fares or proposing a method for drivers to signal that another car was following them too closely.
Mr. Jones’s sister, Jill, said he chanted through the years to keep from losing his voice. But living alone in the woods began to get more difficult about a decade ago. In 2009, he narrowly escaped a fire that tore through the area. Jill called the post office, worried he had died, but an employee told her he had just come in to pick up his mail.
His arthritis also worsened, and he survived prostate cancer, managing to get through his doctors’ appointments without speaking. But when he needed to get a hip replaced around 2016, he told his sister he needed to speak to the doctors and nurses. He walked with the aid of canes and began to talk again, after nearly four decades.
His sister was surprised to hear that he had retained his Midwestern accent, even as one of the first utterances she heard from his mouth was him swearing in his hospital bed after the surgery.
In recent years, he had placed his name on some waiting lists for housing in Santa Cruz, closer to people, though no one who knew him could imagine that he would be happy living in, as he might have put it, a “box.”
‘A throwback to a different time’
Last Chance shares its name with the old logging road that snakes through the forest along ridgelines and across a creek. Residents say they are not sure where the name came from but many repeat a story about the first white settlers calling it Last Chance because it was the state’s last refuge for grizzly bears — and the last chance to hunt them.
Five decades ago, the land was divided into parcels and sold off.
Steve Smith read about Last Chance in a classified ad in The San Francisco Chronicle. He bought 10 acres in 1971 for $15,500 and built a house from adobe bricks that he fashioned from the local soils. The house withstood flooding during torrential rains in 1982, the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and the Lockheed wildfire in 2009.
“I guess we are survivors,” Mr. Smith said last week as he surveyed the destruction of his family homestead — the adobe and the two homes he had built for his two daughters.
Others who lived in Last Chance included contractors, pot growers, a geologist, surfers, an expert in machines to measure particle physics, artists, nurses and a former motorcycle drag racer.
Forest Martinez-McKinney, the particle physics researcher, who works at the University of California, Santa Cruz, attended an elementary school in Last Chance that residents built themselves. During his childhood there were Christmas parties, softball games and Easter egg hunts attended by nearly all of Last Chance. Residents came together to build their own community center and to help each other build homes.
“It was really a throwback to a different time,” Mr. Martinez-McKinney said.
Freak lightning storms across Northern California over the weekend of Aug. 15 and 16 ignited hundreds of wildfires, putting the entire region on edge.
Two days later, Don Harris, the former motorcycle drag racer, was in his home in Last Chance watching the Democratic National Convention when he thought he heard rain hitting his roof. He stepped outside and saw that it was a shower of embers from a fast-approaching wildfire. Trees were snapping from fierce winds. The sky was dark red.
Mr. Harris threw some of his belongings into his SUV and headed south along Last Chance Road, the only road out.
He passed by Mr. Jones’s cabin but saw no one home.
“I will regret till the day that I die that I didn’t give him 20 seconds on the horn just in case he was there,” said Mr. Harris.
The last person to see Mr. Jones that night was Jason Hickey, a contractor and musician, who also lived nearby. Mr. Hickey drove down Last Chance Road toward the exit but the fire had already engulfed the road. Behind him was Mr. Jones in his rented minivan. Both men turned around and doubled back to a clearing, the former site of a saw mill.
The clearing, larger than a football field, was the spot where firefighters from California’s main firefighting agency, Cal Fire, had told residents to gather in the case of a wildfire. Based on painful lessons learned during the fire that leveled another thickly forested community in Paradise, Calif., in 2018, firefighters had said they wanted to make sure that Last Chance Road was clear for fire trucks. Instead of clogging the road, residents should wait in the clearing.
It was a plan that fell apart. Evacuation orders came late — Cal Fire ordered Last Chance residents to leave at about 10 p.m., as the fire already was engulfing the community. And Cal Fire trucks never made it beyond a few miles down Last Chance Road.
“They left us for dead,” said Ian Kapostins, a Last Chance resident.
A Cal Fire spokesman, Edwin Zuniga, said firefighters had been stretched too thin. “When this fire first started there were several fires going on around the state. We were already strapped for resources,” he said.
It was in the clearing, pelted by embers, where Mr. Hickey had the last known conversation with Mr. Jones.
“He said something like, ‘We’re stuck. What should we do?’” Mr. Hickey remembers. “I told him I was going to ride it out in the field. He wasn’t buying that.”
Mr. Jones drove north up a hill in the direction of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, the route that he knew so well.
Until the 1980s, residents had been able to drive along the road up to a locked gate in the park. But after several landslides, park officials decommissioned the road, turning it into a hiking trail about 20 years ago.
Mr. Jones’s car stopped on a narrow, rutted section of the trail.
Back in the clearing, Mr. Hickey spent the night woozy from the thick smoke and batting away what he described as a “river of embers” flying across the field. The next morning he walked six miles through the burning forest.
Reunited with his family and neighbors, Mr. Hickey told them he had seen Mr. Jones driving toward the park.
The search party
With the forest still burning, a number of men from Last Chance drove back to try to find Mr. Jones and several other residents who were also missing. With bandannas over their faces and 10 chain saws, they battled through the forest of oak, madrone and Douglas fir.
“We knew nobody was going to help us,” said Kyli Tanner, a contractor who grew up in Last Chance. “We had to try.”
Deterred by the smoke and the emotional toll of seeing their houses incinerated, they turned back, only to return three days later.
It took six hours to reach Mr. Jones’s car. Mr. Tanner inched down the rocky hillside to a collection of boulders. It was there he found the skeletal remains of Mr. Jones, his two metal walking canes by his side.
To some of Mr. Jones’s acquaintances, it felt like a betrayal. A man who had worked so hard to live in harmony with nature was killed by its ferocity.
“He was, right at the end, surviving, which is how he would want to go,” his sister, Ms. Jones, said. “He wouldn’t want to peter out.”
Thomas Fuller reported from Last Chance, Calif., and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from Edisto Island, S.C. Kitty Bennett contributed research.