CARMET — A Sonoma Coast man escaped a raging fire that destroyed his home early Monday only to succumb moments later in his car, authorities said.
Well-known surfer Steve Wayne McAlpin, 62, was found slumped over the wheel of his Kia Soul after it swerved into a ditch just three doors down from his burning home, family members and authorities said.
He had no apparent burn wounds, but it was otherwise unclear how he died, whether of smoke inhalation, heart failure or some other problem, said his daughter, Acacia Balzer.
Though he suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes, McAlpin was otherwise healthy and still surfing, including four days earlier off Bolinas, Balzer said.
He was also teaching her 7-year-old son to surf, as he'd taught her. "My dad was (almost) 63, and he looked he was 45," Balzer said.
Known affectionately around Bodega Bay as SteveO and, sometimes, Da Kine (excellent) Kahuna, the devoted surfer had lived for more than 40 years in the tight-knit community of Carmet, a collection of year-round and weekend homes with views of the surf north of Bodega Bay.
McAlpin had a surfboard repair shop at his Coastal Avenue home, which was otherwise a treasure trove of collectibles and memorabilia reflecting his life as a lifelong surfer, Grateful Dead fan, music buff and comic book collector, according to his daughter and many friends who gathered in the neighborhood after hearing of their friend's death.
All of it was lost in the blaze discovered shortly after 3:20 a.m. Monday. Several neighbors called 911 to get fire crews to the scene, but the flames already had engulfed the house, leaving behind a charred pile of debris with just the fireplace standing and a rainbow-colored wind-sock wavering above in the wind.
A neighbor across the street said the loud popping and cracking noises from the fire awakened her and her dog, and she came outside early enough to see McAlpin back out of his driveway and start to drive up the street.
He made it past just three houses before driving across the oncoming lane and into a ditch, authorities said. Paramedics attempted to revive him without success.
It was unclear where he was going or why he got into the car, though he had his home phone with him, his daughter said. McAlpin had never owned a cell phone, and it was unclear if he thought driving away would better enable him to call for help.
Bodega Bay Fire Chief Sean Grinnell said it remained unclear what caused the fire. He said he called in the county Arson Investigation Team to help, though there were no specific indications of foul play.
The Sonoma County Sheriff's Department similarly dispatched violent crimes investigators just to make sure nothing was overlooked, particularly given McAlpin's decision to drive away from the house in the chaos, investigative Sgt. Shannon McAlvain said.
Grinnell said the task force probably would have been called no matter what, given the degree of damage and, thus, the difficulty of tracing the fire's origin. "This one, with the injured resident, makes it that much more critical to make sure we're dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's," he said.
McAlpin grew up in the thick of California surfing culture and knew its history, filling his home with irreplaceable artifacts, friends said.