KINGS MOUNTAIN -- Ken Fisher's eyes light up as he recalls the cataclysmic thunderstorm that rumbled over his mountaintop home in April.
"It was spectacular," the billionaire investment guru says of the tempest, which produced more than 700 lightning strikes in the Bay Area, including one that set fire to a Douglas fir half a mile from his house. "Things like that are nature at its most unleashed."
If being perched on a 2,000-foot coastal ridge in a lightning storm frightens rather than exhilarates you, then you might not be cut out for life on Kings Mountain, a rustic community of about 400 year-round homes along Skyline Boulevard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, just 20 minutes -- but a world away -- from downtown San Mateo.
People here trade suburban convenience -- no Starbucks, dry cleaners or takeout Chinese food -- for dwelling amid the northernmost redwood forest on the Peninsula, with trails plunging seemingly in every direction through wooded preserves. They also accept some degree of risk and hardship, particularly in the winter, when storms whip winds to 80 mph or more and trees start to groan and crack.
The refrain from the hardy nature-lovers of Kings Mountain? It's well worth it.
"You can live in the redwoods just 25 miles from San Francisco," said Eileen Fredrikson, whose garage was obliterated by a falling Douglas fir in 1983, "and it feels like you are always on vacation."
Most people in San Mateo County would be hard-pressed to locate Kings Mountain on a map, which is just fine with the secluded community's residents, an eclectic mix that includes blue-collar tradesmen, high-tech workers and musician Neil Young. Hermits were among the first people to settle the mountain in the mid-19th century -- along with loggers, sawmill workers and dairy ranchers -- and that go-it-alone spirit abides.
Once a year, however, the enclave opens itself to the outside world in the form of the Kings Mountain Art Fair. The three-day festival, over Labor Day weekend, raises money for the town's volunteer fire department and elementary school. Artists and artisans from the Bay Area and beyond display their creations in a redwood grove surrounding Phleger Station, which serves as both community center and fire house.
This weekend marks the 49th fair, which began in 1963 to support the establishment of the Kings Mountain Volunteer Fire Brigade. The gritty band was formed after locals realized they would need to be able to help themselves in the event of a major fire.
Volunteers designed and built Phleger Station with donated money and resources, finishing the two-story building in the early 1970s. Today the 12-person department responds to about 150 calls a year, most of them for medical aid. Its budget -- roughly $50,000 this year -- is funded almost entirely by proceeds from the fair.
Hank Stern has been a volunteer firefighter for 17 years, and his wife and three children have learned to live with his unpredictable schedule. Anytime he gets a call, he could be gone for five minutes, five hours or the entire day. When it snows in the winter, the family will sled down the driveway while Stern awaits the inevitable report of a traffic accident or downed tree on Skyline Boulevard.
"It's a great way to give back," said Stern, whose day job entails technology transfer at Genentech. "One of the things that keeps the community together is people looking after each other."
Bob and Pat Wurster were on the receiving end of that neighborly support in 1995 when a vicious gale tore the roof off their home, which sits on the western rim of Purisima Canyon. A nearby wind-speed gauge registered more than 100 mph before it keeled over.
"It was like there was a cyclone in here," Pat Wurster said of her home. "It blew out the front door and pretty much destroyed the place."
With the storm still raging, about 40 people arrived to help. They transported the couple's belongings -- including Puff, a massive rocking dragon carved from Finnish birch -- to the fire station and stored them where the trucks are normally kept.
"The people up here were so wonderful," Wurster said. "Everybody came that day."
That altruistic code has remained intact in recent decades even as a new generation of wealthy residents arrived, said Ardyth Woodruff, who has lived in an old hunting cabin on Kings Mountain since 1962.
"I was afraid that when they started building million-dollar mansions up here it would change the character of the place, but it didn't happen that way," Woodruff said. "The same type of people were attracted to it."
Ken Fisher may run a multibillion-dollar investment firm off Skyline Boulevard, one of the few businesses on the mountain, but he has fit right in since arriving in the early 1970s. Fisher tramped through the forests of Kings Mountain as a boy growing up in San Mateo, and he has become the community's foremost historian.
Being the sort of person who is annoyed, not relieved, to have glimpsed a mountain lion only twice during his many hikes, he is wryly philosophical regarding the fear that the mountain -- with its serpentine roads, horror-movie fog, and dark, silent nights -- elicits in some visitors. Fisher, 61, chalks it up to the ancient human dread of forests as places of danger and enchantment.
"People have always been afraid of the woods, because you can't see more than 10 trees into the future, and behind the 10th tree there might be a goblin, a bear, a mountain lion or a snake," he said. "If there's something dangerous, it approaches you closely."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.