BIG CREEK WILD FIRES, September 1999

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For some information on fire history at Big Creek, see the fire history page.


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

Kirk Complex 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 flames arrive.

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 9-25

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 Camp 9-26-99

 Feynner taking photos on 9-26-99

 sunset up on Highlands Ridge 9-26-99

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 9-29

 dropping fire retardant over Highlands Ridge 9-29-99

 gel team heading up to foam Stewarts' 9-29-99

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 9-30-99

 fire backing down from Gamboa Point 9-30-99

 new bulldozer line on Dolan Ridge 9-30

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 10-4-99

 hotspots just above Backlar deck 10-4-99

 cool burn under the oaks 10-4-99

 Highlands Camp OK 10-4-99

 Highlands camp tan oak shade tree 10-4-99

 Coulter Pine hillside complete burn 10-4-99

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 10-5-99

 burnout near Rust Point (Dolan Ridge) 10-5-99

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 turnaround.


 smokes on Mining Ridge 10-8-99

 smoke column above Eagle Rock, 10-8-99

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.

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