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Fires and Floods at Big Creek, part II

October 10, 1999 to March 1, 2000

On Monday, October 11 Feynner and John drove and hiked around the reserve. The burnout along the line from Highlands Ridge down to Devil's Creek Flat was relatively light, and crews were taking up fire hose along the line. Another crew was attempting to fell a large redwood on the slopes above the Haida House. Burning at the base, this tree is large and quite hazardous.

We also hiked up along the interpretive trail to look at the burn there. This was very interesting. There is a mix of burned and unburned areas. We saw many deer and a set of lion tracks. The trail is hazardous, with burning snags and a lot of rock fall. We both came to the conclusion that the trail should be closed for a few months to allow the wildlife time to settle in to the new conditions, and for the rains to tamp things down before we attempt to rebuild and reopen the trail. Rohana will put up a closure sign in the next few days.

Feynner hiked up to Boronda Camp and reported that the picnic tables survived. They also survived the Rat Creek fire of 1985, a tribute to Ken Norris' wood treatment formula of mixing linseed oil and kerosene! The trail is very messed up as is the route down the canyon to the confluence.

 

 ash lines Highlands Ridge 10-11-99
 

 Interpretive Trail hillside 10-11-99
 

 Highlands Camp spring water tank OK
 

 hose line down Devil's Canyon 10-11-99
 

 Brunette Creek redwoods 10-11-99
 

 Interpretive Trail bridge burned a little 10-11-99

On Thursday, October 14 we went up to check Devil's Creek Flat. The cabins and the Backlar/Stewart Deck look fine, as is the suspension bridge. The firefighters are still mopping up any smokes and hot spots within 500' of the perimeter. They are concerned that the fire could break out again if it gets hot, but today is quite cool and they should have good weather for their work. The fire rehabilitation work is beginning soon and we will be very busy working with the teams.

 

 common cabin (gel removed) 10-14-99
 

 redwood debris near Haida House 10-14-99
 

 Backlar/Stewart deck OK 10-14-99
 

 morning rainbow over gate cabin 10-14-99

On Friday, October 15, there is not much happening. There are no flames and only a very small amount of smoke. There are still two engines, both of which will be gone by tomorrow night. The crews are removing their hoses and other equipment. Rehabilitation should be over within ten days, and will be minimal as was requested by John. Within the burned areas there are many patches of green. The south-facing slopes burned the hottest and have the least amount of greenery left. The Interpretive loop trail has been closed to allow animals freedom of movement between vegetated areas and because of dangerous trail conditions.

 

 Islands of green within the burned areas 10-15-99

On Sunday October 17 John and Feynner hiked up the fire lines with Bob Hawkins, who heads up the "suppression rehabilitation" team at Big Creek. We observed and made recommendations for the rehabilitation of the fire lines within the reserve. The worst damage was caused by bulldozer work on the steep slopes of Dolan Ridge. The most dismaying effect from our point of view is the acreage of disturbed ground on Dolan Ridge, where the bulldozers sometimes made lines 50' across. The hand lines look as though they will recover with minimal intervention; just a few water bars to prevent channelling during the winter rains.

On Tuesday October 19 the fire seems to be essentially out. Helicopters continued in the afternoons to dump salt water on hotspots, and crews were pulling hose and rehabilitating hand lines in the reserve. Feynner and John marked the location of water bars on a portion of Highlands Ridge that seemed potentially erosive. This afternoon and tomorrow a bulldozer will go up Dolan Ridge and begin rehabilitation work there.

John typed up some notes on a possible rehabilitation strategy for the reserve. Anyone is welcome to review the rehabilitation notes and send me comments at jsmiley@cats.ucsc.edu. You may also want to read the draft of an essay he wrote for the local newspaper highlighting his observations and conclusions about the fire.

By noon Thursday, October 21 the fire suppression rehabilitation crews finished their work cleaning up trash, pulling brush back over the lines, and building water bars. Feynner and John worked with them Sunday morning, marking water bars on Highlands Ridge and discussing the hand lines heading down from the ridge. John spent the rest of Wednesday up on Dolan Ridge with a bulldozer and excavator. We used the bulldozer to smooth over the berms and bring material back to the center, then we tamped the loose material with the treads. The operator then used the blade and the treads to make numerous small water bars about 8" high. This was done on all the steep sloping ridge tops. The flat areas were smoothed and walked over. The operator was very careful not to disturb the soil more than necessary. The excavator was used to pull material back up on the road, including brush and small trees, and to tamp down the soft material along the edges. The bulldozer built water bars and sculpted the bottom of the road at the corral. The access up the road is blocked by the brush. We are waiting for the corral gate to be rebuilt.

 

 Rehabilitation with bulldozer 10-20-99
 

 End of dozer line below Eagle Rock 10-20-99
 

 Water bars lower Dolan Ridge
 

 Water bars middle Dolan Ridge

By Monday, October 25, there were just a few smokes in our area. An engine crew was stationed up near the Devil's Creek Flat cabins the last three days, but nothing seemed to be happening. The fire flared up on the north "Tassajara" fire, east of the Big Sur Valley, jumping a fire line and triggering a lot of air activity.

On Friday, October 29, John attended the final report of the Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation team. The team produced some excellent GIS digital maps and photo coverages of the burned area, including all of the reserve. I obtained copies of the photos and am awaiting a CD with the other coverages. The team reported that about 11% of the burned area was "high severity", meaning a lot of white ash with little standing vegetation, checked by helicopter overflight and some ground truthing. About 30% was "medium severity", meaning black ash and lots of standing stems. The remainder was "low severity" or unburned. The team made no attempt to distinguish unburned from lightly burned areas. This would be a good project for us here at the reserve to undertake, since it matters a great deal to the fauna and flora whether or not the flames burned the under story and leaf litter. For comparison, the Marble Cone fire of 1977 was over 50% high intensity burn.

The team used their map coverages to define potential problem watersheds, where steep slopes and high severity burn combine to create potential for high runoff rates. The problem areas include the Big Creek fork of Big Creek, Limekiln Creek, and Tassajara Creek. Their models predict a doubling of runoff rates (as compared with unburned conditions) in the Big Creek fork, and a 1.5x increase in the Devil's Creek fork. However, these are for moderate-intensity storms, and the magnification factor declines as the storm event increases. Since our facilities have proven themselves over 35 years, including major storms, we are likely to have no problems here at the reserve. The regional prediction this year is for a cool winter with low-to-average rainfall.

The team used a very conservative, cautious formula for recommending aerial seeding, and they did propose a very limited amount of seeding (about 200 acres) on parts of the northern burn area which drain into the Upper Carmel River reservoir. They also recommended opening the edges of log jams to allow steeled access in most of the streams, including Big Creek. I requested that this not be done in research areas such as Big Creek and Limekiln Creek, where natural processes should be allowed to proceed unhindered. The team also proposed hand lopping standing sticks in some areas near Nacimiento Road and the other roads, to help hold the soil. They proposed to do this in areas of moderate slope only, where it would have a beneficial effect. It will not be done on very steep slopes where the work itself could create damage.

Overall the team took a very cautious, conservative approach, balancing wilderness values with what they consider to be serious liability issues in the event of extreme weather events.We hope that in the future, we could reach a situation in which landowners would be exempt from lawsuits if they maintain their land as undisturbed wilderness. It would then be the property owner's responsibility to be prepared for natural disasters and natural events arising from wild lands in their watersheds. We are fortunate at Big Creek to have no neighbors downstream who could be affected by flooding.

During the week a team of about 25 firefighters worked up along the interpretive trail, supposedly mopping up and fixing up the trail. I requested that they keep out of the area, but the boss told me that this work was necessary to prevent an outbreak should the weather turn hot and windy. I requested that they do as little as possible. They came in three days, and, as far as I could tell, they did very little other than minor trail work.

On Sunday November 7, 1.5" of rain fell across the reserve. John went out in the evening and cut water bars along the canyon road between Devil's Creek Flat and Highlands Ridge. On previous days Feynner and Rohana had cleaned out the bars on most of the remaining roads. The roads came through just fine and, with a little more maintenance, should make it through the winter.

Big Creek turned black during the night, and rose up about 3-6". When John took water samples at the confluence of Big Creek and Devil's creek on Monday, he found that most of black color originated in Devil's Creek. The Big Creek fork was a light milky brown color, fairly translucent and the Devil's fork was black as ink. On Tuesday most of the black color had subsided, and the creek just looked slightly muddy, as happens with a heavy rain that creates landslides.

 

 Water samples 11-8-99

John hiked up Dolan Ridge to check the water bars on the fire line. There was no sign of any runoff along the fire line, with no sedimentation in the water bars. Up on the ridge he checked the burn area in the grassland. The soot and ash had vanished without any sign of runoff, as if it had dissolved into the ground. The ground was again pale brown, this time from a layer of seeds, unburned stems, and gopher mounds. The seeds were most prominent, mainly wild oat seeds, so thick they almost touched each other. It would be interesting to see how viable they are.

 

 

 Water bars middle Dolan Ridge showing slight sedimentation

 Seeds left in grasslands after burn.

 

 grasslands after burn and after first rain

We got about 1/2" of rain on Tuesday, November 16, dampening the roads and soil. A water sample taken two days after the first rain was fairly clear, and the creek depth subsided to pre-rain levels. However, the creek lacks its usual purity and seems distinctly "polluted." The bed is coated with fine sediment. Bacterial surveys have revealed 10x to 20x normal counts. We do not know if this is a consequence of the first rains, or if it is a consequence of the burn. Millions of seedlings are sprouting, as are stumps of burned trees and shrubs. Green tufts of leaves may already be seen at the base of severely burned madrone trees. Grass seeds collected on Dolan Ridge last week have germinated.

As of January 8 we have gotten no additonal rain. The sunny weather has encouraged the growth of sprouts and the hills are getting a green tinge. The Dolan Ridge fire line remains stable, but is growing a vast crop of milk thistle (Silybum marianum), in former problem areas. Big Creek remains slightly dirty as compared with its usual crystal clarity, even though the creek level is at base flow (1.38' on gauge). The bacteria counts have declined, but still remain above pre-rain, pre-fire levels. The creek pH is higher than normal (=9.0).

   thistle seedlings along dozer line on Dolan Ridge 1-10-00
   grass seeds on solstice pt still not germinated 1-10-00

On January 10 I hiked up Dolan Ridge to Pine Meadows through section 14, the "South Overstrom" or "Prentiss" property. I noticed that the fire lines were sometimes greened over, sometimes bare. From Rust Point north the bulldozer line was rehabilitated with water bars and brush spread over the line, all the way to pine Meadows. The meadows were partially bladed over in a swath about 60' wide. The bulldozer line ended at a point about 100m south of Rust Point. There were adequate water bars until the promentory of chalk point, but from that point down to Eagle Rock there were no adequate water bars and the danger of erosion is severe.

   this part of the dozer line was not rehabilitated and needs water bars 1-10-00
   soap plant srouts eaten off by deer, Dolan Ridge 1-10-00
   grass seedling sprouting Dolan Ridge fire break. Does anywone know what kind these are? 1-10-00

 

 dozer line greening up 1-10-00

On January 22-23 we received the first moderate-heavy rains of the season. Over 3" fell at the Big Creek gate cabin, and about 10" fell on the top of Mining Ridge. The creek flooded to a height of 4.7' on the gauge, about 3.2' above base flow. Most of the bridges washed out. The creek was extremely muddy, with the Devil's Creek fork substantially muddier than the Big Creek fork. John measured the turbidity of the water using a test kit that measures "JTU's": Devils Creek = 5120 JTU's, Big Creek above confluence with Devil's = 1088 JTU's, and Big Creek near Gate Cabin = 3200 JTU's.

On 1-24-99 John hiked up Dolan Ridge to check the water bars along the fire line. The line is very green, with seedling plants forming a continuous cover in many places. There are a few bare patches with no vegetation. The water bars were in excellent condition, with only one failure out of about 50 bars. The thistles were forming a continuous canopy in a few areas along the lower ridge. Overall the fire line looked very good, with little evidence of excessive erosion. The grasslands in the burn area looked very good, with a firm substrate and substantial growth of plants.

   Water samples after light rains 1-18-00
   Water samples after heavy rains 1-23-00
   Dolan Ridge fire line after moderate rains 1-23-00

 
 Milk Thistles (Silybum marianum) on Dolan Ridge fire line 1-24-00

On the afternoon of January 24 the rains let up, with light rain through the night and drying through the 25 and 26. However, showers during the night, combined with soaked ground, caused the creek rose up to 5.3 on the gauge. Rohana took more water samples and found that the creek had cleared considerably, in spite of the higher flow rates.The turbidity rreading in JTU's was only 150 for Devil's Creek and 50 for Big Creek above the confluence. The conductivity and pH were low, but the dissolved oxygen was normal.

 

Big Creek stream gauge just upstream from gate cabin 1-19-00

1.5' on gauge

 

stream gauge during high water 1-25-00

4.3' on gauge

   

I went down to the beach on January 29, and found huge drifts of woody debris washed down in the flooding. It consisted of leaves, small sticks and pieces of wood and charcoal. On January 31, 15' swells pounded the coast and dispersed the debris. Most of the gravel bar covering the cove beach also disappeared. On February 3 a 1" rain caused the creek to rise about 6". In contrast to previous events, the Big Creek fork was muddier than the Devil's Creek fork. See the stream studies page for more information about the creek.

   Drift of woody debris on beach just south of Big Creek cove. Drift is about 150' long. 1-29-00
   Ridges turning green 1-27-00

On February 13 the creek rose up to over 7' on the staff gauge. It washed out all the bridges and thoroughly flushed out anything in its path. About a foot of rain fell on the upper slopes of the drainage. By Monday the two forks of the creek were nearly the same in terms of turbidity and sediment load. However, on Monday night a slide must have occurred up in the drainage because the water in Devil's Creek turned milky white, and remained that way all day. Often when the ground becomes saturated and slips down in a slide, the slide mass takes several days to drain. The draining water is often an intense reddish orange, or perhaps as in this case, milky white.

 

 Big Creek at stage height (depth) of 6.9'

2-14-00

   Big Creek fork clearing and brownish, 5.5' on guage. 2-15-00
   Devil's Ck. fork milky white after overnight event, 5.5' on gauge. 2-15-00
   Big Creek foam and dark water, 6.9' on gauge. 2-14-00

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