BIG CREEK WILD FIRES, September
For some information on fire history
at Big Creek, see the fire history
Highlands Ridge Fire On Wednesday night, September 8, 1999, a lightning
storm struck our part of the Big Sur coast. Lightning hit several
trees in the reserve, and one started a wildfire on the slopes
of Highlands Ridge just north of Highlands Camp. Reserve steward
Fanner Arias discovered the fire on Thursday afternoon after smelling
smoke and searching the upper parts of the reserve. He called
in the fire from his phone at Whale Point, and then guided Forest
Service firefighters to the site, blazing a trail with his machete.
The fire was located about 500 feet below the road, well down
the slopes of Devil's canyon. The firefighters put the fire out
in about 24 hours, using firehoses and water from their fire engines.
the "Highlands Ridge"
fire site 9-19-99
fires. Strikes in nearby areas started major wildfires, including
the Kirk-Hare and the Tassajara-Mountain fires. By September
15, these fires had grown to a very large size and smoke covered
the skies above the reserve. Ash rained down for a couple of days.
On Saturday, September 18 we received word from Mike Boone, the
local captain at Pacific Valley Fire Station, that crews were
planning to begin building fire lines through the reserve. This
began a week of intensive fire planning and discussion. We established
the principle that bulldozers would not be used in the reserve,
consistent with policies in place for the neighboring Ventana
Wilderness. A 50' fuel break was cut along the road between Highlands
Camp and a quarter mile short of the Canogas Falls trailed, by
cutting Madrone and Manzanita, primarily. This break was never
finished. A much smaller 5' line was cut from the "second
crossing" where the road crosses Highlands Ridge below Highlands
camp, down to a point below the "first crossing" where
the road re-crosses near the Stewart cabin. A cut was then made
straight down the canyon to Devil's Creek flat, a long thin snaking
cut 10-20 feet wide. This cut crosses the road at the switch back
halfway down from the "X" to Devil's Creek Flat.
Another fire line was started up Dolan Ridge,
which, after several days of strenuous work, connected to the
North Coast Ridge Road north above the head waters of Big Creek.
The "no bulldozer" policy was modified for the fire
line on Dolan Ridge, where a bulldozer was used under controlled
conditions to relieve the tired fire crews. This fire trail crosses
the "section 14" property, a northern section of land
which we hope to incorporate into the reserve.
San Carlos Apache women's
crew on Dolan Ridge
Highlands Peak from below
Highlands Camp 9-19-99
A group of friends and volunteers helped
us evacuate valuable and irreplaceable items from the cabins at
Whale Point, although we are keeping the buildings open for use
by firefighters and our own personnel. The Miltons, our neighbors
next door at the Circle M flat, offered us the use of their garage
and we filled it with specimen cabinets, manuscripts, tools, etc.
We are also parking vehicles in their flat. The Devils creek owners
have also come through and removed irreplaceable items from their
cabins, including the Stewart cabin. They and the fire crews have
brushed and cleared around the cabins. The fire crews plan to
stay and defend the cabins if a slow "backing fire"
approaches, using water hoses and tools. They plan to spray the
Stewart cabin with foam. They have warned us that if a wind-driven
fire approaches they will spray everything and leave before the
As of Friday September 24, the fire is burning along a line between Devil's
Ridge and French Camp, and is backing down slowly to the west.
Jason Burnette's cabin at French camp was spared and still stands,
although the flames surrounded the cabin. The next likely structures
threatened include the Highlands Peak weather station and the
Gamboa Point Ranch sawmill down in Vicente Creek.
As of Saturday September 25, the fire had burned a few hundred feet down toward
Vicente Creek from French Camp and the upper road. We saw some
major flares, including some redwoods which burned from bottom
to top. The fire also burned a couple of hundred feet to the north
of the road where it enters the redwoods north of French Camp
redwoods, and we saw a photographed some ceanothus and possibly
ponderosa pines burning. The fires on the upper west slopes of
Devil's Ridge had mostly burned out, except for a plume which
traveled 500' north, and another small one a little to the south.
Warmer temperatures (about 90 degrees F) seem to be helping the
fire burn hotter a move faster. Even, so the fire moved only a
few hundred feet since the day before.
flare up north of French Camp redwoods
As of Sunday September 26, another hot day saw the fire move south and west
from French Camp and the upper road, burning down into the upper
reaches of Vicente Creek. The 'front" of the fire moved nearly
1/4 mile west. North of French camp the fire move about 500 feet
west and 1000 feet north, and we saw flare ups on the slopes above
the Canogas Falls trail. The fire on Devil's Ridge burned uphill
and around to the northeast, and it seemed to have burned out
lower down the slopes, halting its advance to the west. Fire crews
were working on the ridges above the hermitage and Lucia, and
we were told that the crews plan to burn along those lines in
a couple of days.
water drop south of French
Feynner taking photos on
sunset up on Highlands Ridge
As of Monday, September 27, the fire burned quite a ways to the west with
the hot, dry conditions and a breeze from the northeast. It burned
across the Canogas Falls trail and up over Highlands Peak, surrounding
the weather station. We don't know how the station fared, and
it may be a while before we can get up there to look. In Vicente
Canyon the fire moved a mile or so west, above the sawmill and
on the northern slopes. Monday evening John got a call from a
friend on Partington Ridge, 8 miles north. Flames were clearly
visible from there, probably from the eastern end of Mining Ridge
as well as from Harlan Mountain above Lucia.
On Tuesday September 28, Feynner and John went up to Highlands Camp to
see what they could save. They removed the new plastic water tank
and a prepared the site as best we could. The flames were about
250 yards away and it looked as if the camp might burn this evening
or soon thereafter (or sooner if it heats up). The Canogas Falls
canyon was choked with smoke and it seems likely that the fire
has burned down to the falls
Highlands Peak NE of Highlands
Camp road 9-28-99
On Wednesday, September 29, air tankers started dropping orange fire retardant
along Highlands Ridge. It is a fairly hot day. The fire crested
the ridge and burned through Highlands Camp. We don't know how
the picnic tables fared, but are certain the outhouse was burned.
A "gel team" headed up to the Stewarts' cabin to foam
it; a couple of media news trucks went up with the gel team. Although
the smoke and fire are just above Stewarts on Highlands Ridge,
it may be some time before the fire works its way through the
oak woods to the cabin. The fire is slowly creeping its way down
from Highlands Peak toward Devil's Creek Flat. As of 3pm it was
down to about 1500' elevation, about 3/4 mile from the cabins
on the flat. During the previous 24h it moved down about 500'
of elevation, or less than 1000' of distance, so it may be some
days before it reaches the flat. The fire fighting crew are pretty
confident they can save the structures, unless the wind strengthens.
looking up at Highlands Peak
dropping fire retardant over
Highlands Ridge 9-29-99
gel team heading up to foam
On Thursday, September 30, John hiked up Dolan Ridge to check out the fire
line and take pictures. John discovered that the bulldozers had
dug a wide, deep cut up much of the ridge, including on the steep
slopes. Cuts were often 12" deep and sometimes deeper, and
berms were created along both sides of the cut. This work was
contrary to the agreements John had made earlier.
The fire has burned down to bottom of Devil's
Canyon about 1/2 mile upstream from the Devil's Creek Flat, and
is also creeping down the slope from Highlands Peak. Today the
"gel team" went in and applied gel to the three cabins.
The fire burned slowly down from Highlands Camp toward the Stewart's
cabin, but seem still to be over 100 yards from the cabin. The
fire is also burning north from Gamboa Point, which burned over
last night. As of 1pm the fire was down to the line of Ceanothus
below Gamboa Point, and may heat up as it enters the brush. It
is another hot day, and the marine layer is shallow. The cool
air and fog only extend up to about 400' elevation.
common cabin covered in gel
fire backing down from Gamboa
new bulldozer line on Dolan
As of Saturday, October 2, the fire had burned around the Stewart cabin,
leaving it undamaged. Cooler weather and a thick marine air layer
have slowed the progress of the fire in the reserve. According
to Reserve Steward Feynner Arias, the fire has crept very slowly
down toward the Devil's Creek Flat area, but still has a ways
to travel before reaching the cabins. It also has crept down from
Stewarts' and crossed the little canyon to Highlands Ridge at
about the level of the road. The switch back in the oaks below
Highlands Ridge has apparently burned. The fire seems to have
gone out as it descended into the brush below Gamboa Point, and
John saw no smokes along the lower fire front from Stewarts' south
to Vicente Creek. Feynner saw big plumes of smoke from the direction
of the Coast Ridge trail, and he said the fire front was going
up the north fork of Devil's Creek toward Mining Ridge. The camera
failed last time John tried to download pictures, so he has no
new pictures to add.
As of Monday October 4, the fire in the reserve had burned only a few
hundred feet from its position two days before. It was burning
deep in the ravine just north of the Stewart cabin, and by afternoon
was beginning to make its way up the slope to the grasslands on
Highlands Ridge. Helicopters were dropping salt water on hot spots
there and below Gamboa Point. There were also a couple of smokes
near the Backlar Deck, and a fire crew was working near the deck.
It was much hotter up on Mining Ridge, where a major burn was
in progress creating a lot of smoke. To the north, up on Pine
Meadows and the top of Dolan Ridge, a back-burn was in progress,
creating a lot of flame and smoke. John was advised by one fire
captain that the crews plan to burn a line along Dolan Ridge to
prevent the fire from crossing over.
The afternoon as quite cool and I drove
the mule up to Highlands Peak to look at the land. Starting under
the oaks near the switch back below Stewarts', most of the land
near the road has burned. There are some unburned patches, however.
The fire was very hot in areas around Highlands Camp, particularly
on the north slope near the spring. From there up to the Canogas
Falls trailed the fire burned most areas except for a few unburned
patches. Looking across the creek to the slopes below Lion Peak,
John saw a large area that had burned completely to the ground
(John calls this area the Coulter Pine hill). Driving up to the
weather station he saw severely burned areas, including the grove
of Ponderosa Pines, which seem to have been killed. Amazingly
enough the weather station survived. Most of the instruments melted
and some of the wooden parts of the structure burned, but when
John opened the box the computer started right up and began reading
the one temperature sensor that was still working.
Highlands Peak weather station
Highlands Peak weather station
damaged but still runs
burning hot on Mining Ridge
hotspots just above Backlar
cool burn under the oaks
Highlands Camp OK 10-4-99
Highlands camp tan oak shade
Coulter Pine hillside complete
On Tuesday, October 5, fire crews attempted to "burn out" along
the top of Dolan Ridge, continuing the previous day's burn down
to Block Point just above the gate cabin. Hot burns were occurring
on the steep slopes leading from lower Dolan Ridge down to Big
Creek Canyon near the gate cabin spring. During the early hours
of the morning the crews burned the upper reaches of Dolan Ridge,
making a strong glow which awakened me and prompted John to get
up and see what was going on.
By afternoon, the fire down in the ravine
below Stewarts' seemed to have gone out. The burns on Dolan Ridge
continued, with some major burning on the north slopes of Solstice
Point above the Interpretive trail Midden archaeological site.
A huge plume of smoke rose to several thousand feet from the burnout
up near Rust Point in section 14 north of the reserve. The fire
continued to burn the middle slopes of Mining Ridge, high above
Devil's Creek Flat and mainly on the north slopes over the Big
Creek Fork. The smokes in Devil's Canyon went out, and the ones
on the middle slope continued to burn slowly.
gel applied to Haida House
burnout near Rust Point (Dolan
On Friday, October 8, the fire is backing down mining ridge toward the
Haida House, maybe 1/4 mile above it this afternoon. Brunette
Creek is burning, also the Interpretive trail. Last night it was
burning at the little spring at Boronda Camp, now its moving to
the left and right and toward Cathedral Rock. The gully down toward
the hot spring has been burning since last night and the fire
there is moving south on Mining Ridge . Last night it burned from
the confluence up to the hot spring, on the Boronda side. Two
days ago, the fire was stopped 600 feet from the common cabin,
using pumps to get water from the creek.There was also a successful
burnout between the Stewart cabin and the picnic table near the
smokes on Mining Ridge 10-8-99
smoke column above Eagle
On Saturday, October 9 at 3am, the fire burned down the slope toward the
Haida House and Toni's cabin. The firefighters were able to stop
it before the cabins were damaged, lighting backfires to stop
the downward advance. The fire also heated up on the south slopes
of Devil's Canyon and the crews set up a fire line along the hand
line they had cut weeks before. During the day they set off a
backfire which burned over to the fire, effectively blocking its
movement to the west.
On Sunday, October 10, the fire was considered to be contained, and indeed
the amount of smoke was greatly reduced. However, hundreds of
spot fires continue to burn, and a lot of mopping up continues
to take place.