Barnacle Snug Luffy (left) and his wife, Satya, enjoy a moment of rest on March 2 amid the ongoing restoration efforts at their Niland property that sustained significant damage during the June 28 fire. | JULIO MORALES PHOTO
That’s how Barnacle Snug Luffy described the ongoing restoration that he and his wife, Satya, have undertaken at their six-acre ranch in Niland following the devastating June 28 inferno that destroyed their home and dozens of others.
Already, the Luffys have had success situating a pair of new travel trailers on the property where their former home stood, restoring electricity and running water, as well as rebuilding the greenhouse where Satya tends to her plants and vegetables.
Gone, though, are two lifetimes’ worth of irreplaceable personal items, as well as an estimated $500,000 in tools and mechanical equipment that was destroyed by the fire and which was not insured, said “Doc,” as he is also known.
But in the place of all those possessions, there appears to have emerged a growing acceptance of the outside world that Luffy said he had kept at bay for decades and which came inching back in the form of unsolicited goodwill gestures following the four-alarm brush fire.
The Napa Valley native and former U.S. Army Green Beret said his combat deployment during the Vietnam War resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder and compelled him to become an unapologetic recluse once he had returned stateside.
Satya, a native of Cambodia, was similarly left with a lifetime of trauma when, as a child, most of her family were starved to death in prison camps under the Pol Pot regime. Secluded on their Niland ranch, the pair were able to indulge in a host of shared interests with limited intrusions from the public for the better more than two decades. Until the June 28 fire changed everything.
“Now, something has changed in me,” Luffy said. “I am open to making new friends and friendships.”
Some of that newfound acceptance of humanity was on display on Jan. 12, when Luffy spoke to the county Board of Supervisors during the meeting’s public comment period. While his intent was to thank local officials for their assistance during the community’s time of need, he also alluded to how recovery efforts had forced him into contact with individuals who he has since befriended.
“Despite all the loss, I have gained so much,” the 74-year-old Luffy told the board.
The Making of a Recluse
The night of the June 28 fire, Luffy had briefly considered loading his truck with important and valuable items before he and his wife evacuated from the encroaching fire that appeared to have originated on an adjacent property east of their Fourth Street home located west of Highway 111.
But the sight of his 56-year-old wife panicking at the mere thought of the advancing flames forced him to abandon the plan and instead turn his attention to her. As a 10-year-old in Cambodia, Satya had been severely burned during an incident on a derailed steam train. Since then, she has been deathly afraid of fire, Luffy said.
“My focus went completely to her,” he said. “There was nothing that was going to get in front of her needs.”
The pair left just about everything behind except the clothes they were wearing and some pet goats, whose presence had kept them from seeking shelter at a hotel later that night. Instead, they and the goats spent the night in a field nearby their property and watched from afar the glow of the fire the winds had pushed eastward across Highway 111 into town.
Luffy’s father was the first to relocate to Niland from the Napa Valley, and Luffy, born Robert Edwin Clark Jr., followed suit in the late 1990s, when he purchased a plot adjacent to his father’s land for about $13,000.
Luffy said he initially came to seek solace and isolation. His mindset was quite a departure from the sense of adventure that had motivated him to join the U.S. Army as a young college student who became enamored with a brochure advertising the service’s Green Berets.
Once enlisted, he volunteered in short order to receive airborne, special forces, and medical training. Shortly after being deployed to Vietnam in 1968, he began to question whether the Special Forces’ motto, “De oppresso liber,” which in Latin means “To free the oppressed,” really applied to the mission he was tasked with carrying out.
“About six months in country, I realized we were the oppressor,” Luffy said.
His combat experience laid the groundwork for post-traumatic stress disorder and, eventually, his shunning of society.
“I kind of lost faith in man, so it was easy for me to be a recluse,” Luffy said. “I had no friends, and I didn’t want any friends.”
With the passing of Luffy’s father in 2000 and his inheritance of his father’s parcel, he and Satya began converting the combined six acres into an oasis of their own, complete with more than 450 palm trees, ponds, greenhouse, small laboratory, and wildlife habitat.
The property lies in the path of the Pacific Flyway, an expansive north-south migratory route for birds, and is certified as wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. Its ponds and trees attracted a variety of both bird species and birdwatchers, also known as birders, who in one instance had come from afar to get a glimpse of a gray catbird that was spotted on the property, Doc said.
“Nobody else but the birders knew about this place and that was fine with me,” he said.
With the insurance money the Luffys collected from their significant losses, they elected to purchase two airstream trailers as well as heavy equipment machinery to perform much of the restoration work Doc has planned.
“I am hoping that once I get the place back in shape that the animals will return,” he said, referring to the four different species of owls, six different kinds of snakes, desert foxes, and coyotes that had frequented the property.
While the koi fish that Luffy had raised in the ponds from fingerlings perished, the catfish appear to have survived, including a three-foot specimen the Luffys have nicknamed “Jaws.”
And before Doc can restock the ponds with more fish, he will need to install protective netting above the water’s surface to prevent waterfowl from eating the juvenile fish.
The ponds were also home to muskrats that were a favorite food source for the successive generations of bobcats that have reared young at a den that is located on the property. The fire appears to have killed all the muskrats and forced the bobcats to pay less frequent visits. Still, Luffy said the ongoing restoration will hopefully bring them back.
“It’s kind of in their DNA,” he said. “This was one of the only places that was safe for them to have their young.”
The property holds a special bond for both Doc and Satya, who buried the ashes of their stillborn son at a shrine near one of the ponds. Doc’s father had similarly placed a coffee can with the ashes of his mother at the site. Following his father’s passing, Doc had interred his ashes in the same spot, as well.
Both Luffys consider themselves highly spiritual individuals who have experienced encounters that they could only describe as supernatural. One such instance occurred when Satya first stepped foot on the property and felt a kinship with its past occupants.
“She said she just fell in love with this property,” Doc said.
County Recovery Efforts Ongoing
The Luffys’ home was just one of about 40 structures that were destroyed by the June 28 fire which also left some 33 households displaced and caused about $3.6 million in losses, said county Deputy Executive Officer Esperanza Colio.
The county was able to house 37 families at the Del Yermo RV Park in Calipatria in travel trailers that the county was able to procure from the state. In early February, some 13 families continued to be temporarily housed at the RV park, Colio said.
“The County of Imperial continues to pay the cost of rent for the trailers at Del Yermo RV Park and continues to offer support to families in applying for other homeless prevention and assistance programs,” Colio said in a Feb. 10 email.
To date, the state has neither denied nor approved the county’s fire-related emergency declaration, which if approved would qualify the county for additional emergency funds, she said.
The county has been able to use $350,000 in funds approved by the California Department of Housing and Community Development to clean up the damaged properties and provide three months of temporary housing relocation to families impacted by the fire.
“All of those funds have been exhausted and the County of Imperial is awaiting contract execution with HCD in order to get reimbursed for those expenses,” Colio said.
In addition, the county utilized $100,000 that was allocated for the recovery effort through the Community Benefit Program to assist with the cleanup efforts and provide impacted families with supplemental funds beyond the initial three months allowed by the HCD funding, she said.
At that time, the county was also in the process of conducting a survey to determine the right-of-way of the streets of Niland. Following the completion of the survey, an additional survey is required for each affected property to determine precise boundaries to allow construction and prevent any potential encroachment issues, Colio said.
“It’s a process that we need to follow,” she said.
Investigators were not able to conclusively determine whether the cause of the fire was accidental in nature or deliberately set, Imperial County Fire Chief Alfredo Estrada Jr. said on March 2.