Monday, May 29, 2017

Santa Lucia Coast Range & Big Sur California: An Environmental Wreck ???

(Part I) While news reports have focussed on Nature, the real spotlight should be aimed at human mismanagement of the region, from the region's land management policies right on down to the average land owner
Image from YouTube

Image - nbclosangeles.com
This iconic image above is of Bixby Creek Bridge along central California's Big Sur Coastline. This region is one of the prettiest gems for which tourists are attracts people to visit California. This bridge is probably the most photographed feature on the Cabrillo Highway (Route 1) in California. But the area has also had a long troubled history infrastructure issues here along this coast highway. During this past year (2016) it has been a tough time to for visiting tourists and even tougher challenge if you are a local permanent resident or business owner. For almost a year they have been isolated completely from the outside world. First, there has been a long period of drought, with this region listed on maps as being far above the rest of the state's "severe" & "extreme" designations to the high rating of "exceptional." As time went on, that extreme designation on the map spread, but has always been exceptionally bad between San Francisco & Santa Barbara in the coastal mountin ranges. Second, there was the  Soberanes Fire (& multiple other fires) which started on July 22nd 2016. On August 2, officials announced that their investigation found that the fire had been caused by an unattended illegal campfire. While no suspect was identified, Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo said that, if an arrest were made, the culprit could be charged with negligence and manslaughter. Yeah that's right, someone died. And finally third, after 5 years of intense exceptional drought, this past 2016/17 record rainy season brought the mud and landslides. Bridges gone, roads collapsed and massive slides of whole mountainsides coming down obliterating everything in it's path. Now while Nature certainly played a role, it's often the lack of foresight in planning and critical mistakes in decision making during the crisis which exacerbate these problems which has a domino effect later on. In this particular post (Part I), I'll mainly focuss on the Soberanes Fire & human error.

Image by Stan Russell - The Big Sur Blog

Looking north from Soberanes Point about 10:30 PM, 7/23/16
Working its way down steep canyons towards Highway 1

This fire at it's very beginning blitzed through an area I had first discovered back in 1985 called Palo Colorado Canyon north of Big Sur which is well hidden from most outside tourists unfamiliar to the region. Locals know exactly where this area is. This place was a beautiful hidden paradise when I first found it back in 1985, but it's mostly gone today. My second trip there in 2014 which you can read from the link above, I also wrote about an amazing phenomena from this region where streams and rivers still ran even after years of exceptional drought. The question was why ? Especially since I did point out the numerous dead trees I saw first hand back up in that canyon in 2014. In 1985 there were no dead trees. But there are a combination of two natural components that allow streams and rivers to flow here even without normal winter rains & absence of summer monsoonal rains that the interior part of the state experiences and that would be Hydraulic Descent & Fog Preciptiation which is the very reason water sources are so dependable here. But human error changed all that. Here is a blog account and discussion by locals in the Big Sur area about the problem of illegal campfires on June 30th 2016 just a couple of weeks before the July 22nd 2016 Soberanes Fire. 
Xasauan Today Blog - Because Nature Bats Last

Image - Xasauan Today Blogger
The Campfire Conundrum 
"On a Sunday walk along the Pine Ridge Trail during Level IV fire restrictions in 2013, we looked at dozens of fire rings and couldn’t find a single one that hadn’t been used the night before."   
"Level III fire restrictions are currently in effect in the Los Padres National Forest. This means that all wood and charcoal fires are completely prohibited outside of a few designated Campfire Use sites (in designated car campgrounds). Smoking and recreational target shooting are similarly restricted. Lanterns and stoves may only be used with a Campfire Permit."   
"This isn’t a secret. Signs informing the public that campfires are prohibited abound. In spite of this, and in spite of the fact that fire danger is obviously quite high, campers light dozens of fires along Big Sur’s backroads and trails every single night."  
"What gives?  My guess is that it’s a function of the same human failing that prevents us, in so many contexts, from seeing how seemingly harmless individual behavior can have a devastating cumulative effect. The campfire builder likely perceives, correctly, that there is little chance that his or her fire will be the one to cause a conflagration. After all, it’s probably fewer than one in a thousand illegal campfires that becomes a wildfire. To these campers, the suggestion that they are endangering life, property and forest resources seems uptight and exaggerated."
Follow the rest of the story and comments section discussion about the potential for disaster (HERE) and keep in mind that three weeks later that devastating Soberanes wildfire started and burned for four months from July 22nd thru October 28th when it was declared 100% contained with only some hotspots still to be dealt with in the fire perimeter. But this wasn't the only damage done to the area. Despite heroic efforts by firefighters, much damaged was done by the Bull Dozer construction of Fire or Fuel Breaks along almost every major ridge, even some impossible access areas on the edge  of wilderness. And these were not just one or two bulldozer blades wide fire breaks, these were often 5 or 6 blades wide or more. Admittedly this is a tough wild extremely steep rugged impossible canyon terrain. But the problems they created in attempting to stop the wildfire will be with this area for a long time to come.

Image - Big Sur Kate Blog

Well, you can google more Bull Dozer fuel break cutting work on the Soberanes Firelines and many more done far away from the actual firelines in anticipation of the fire breaking out and making big runs which quite often did happened. There were so many big equipment companies called to fight this fire that the region in some places looked like an all out war preparation by a German Army Panzer Division. Maps at the time showed an extensive networks of bull dozed fireline roads everywhere which seriously did look like Battle Plan maps and I suppose they really were. But the real damage here was to the underground mycorrhizal grid and infrastructure of both native tree and chaparral root systems which took centuries for this part of the natural world to construct. An Absence of the mycorrhizal grid will be a major invite over the next few years for non-native noxious weeds to grab a foothold which will eventually become permanent residents into this once pristine untouched landscape.


Image - Cal Fire San Benito-Monterey Unit

Crews work on putting in control lines for the Soberanes Fire
 near Big Sur, California in this August 4, 2016


 (Vern Fisher - Monterey Herald)

Bulldozers work on a fire break in the Rancho San Carlos area
 of Carmel Valley while fighting the 23,568 acre Soberanes Fire
 on Wednesday, July 27, 2016 just five days after the fire began


(Vern Fisher - Monterey Herald)

A private contractor dozer operator works a fire line
 west of Cachagua in August 2016

 (David Royal - Monterey Herald)

Panzer Divisions Dozer Crews cut a containment line on
Daniel’s Ridge east of the Old Coast Road as firefighters
battle the Soberanes Fire in Big Sur

Photo from CAL FIRE

The dozer that rolled over on the Soberanes Fire in 2016,
killing Robert Reagan
"Both a private contractor and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) were issued citations by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) related to a fatality when a dozer rolled over. Robert Reagan, 35, of Friant, California, was killed while fighting the Soberanes Fire south of Monterey, California July 26, 2016."   
"Minutes after Mr. Reagan began operating the piece of equipment for Czirban Concrete Construction on contract to CAL FIRE, it rolled over. Not wearing a seat belt, he was thrown from the cab and was killed when the dozer rolled onto him."
(Source; wildfiretoday.com)

Sadly the Army of bull dozer operators used to stop this wildfire and save property owner dwellings not only took it's toll on the environment, but also one bull dozer operator's life. Often times and especially in terrain like this, many firefighters are asked to do impossible tasks at the risk of their very lives. I've previously written about and voiced my opinion about firefighters having to risk their lives for people who have built buildings on property with impossible death trap access. The image below I watched on television Live in May 2014 where wildfire in San Marcos, California in 2014 which moved towards one hilltop Mansion which was surrounded by more than a dozen giant dead Aleppo Pine trees in the homeowner's landscape. Nobody should be made to risk life and save that and homeowners who choose such locations should accept the inevitable. You can read that post below here:


Image - NBC San Diego
Should Firefighters be expected to save Homes which are located in fire trap geography and where the owner cared less about landscape hygiene ?

After any Wildfire the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) assessment would have conducted a survry and an implementation clean-up & repair work would be on-going for perhaps months. 
Inciweb.com

Excavator moving previously cut vegetation to cover fireline.

inciweb.com

Excave placing vegetation material on fireline

Inciweb.com

Working on suppression repair

Inciweb.com

Brush and cut vegetation from suppression repair work.

After it's all said and done, this is the result of clean-up repairs. Areas where the wildfire were untouched are repaired from a human eye-candy appeal point of view where brush is placed on top of the fuel break scar to hide it and provide some measure of runoff control with the next seasons winter rains. What they don't tell you and probably most of them are ignorant of or if the know, view it as trivial, the mycorrhizal fungal network grid which previously supported native chaparral and trees has been erased and obliterated under the ground. The scar is now ripe for take over by non-native invasive annual grasses and other noxious weeds which were generally kept in check by the former fungal network, but now that this has been removed, a bacterial soil system has replaced it and this scenario is what annual weeds will thrive under. Some scars will be left untouched like this once below from the Sherpa Fire. It will be viewed now as a strategic fuel break for fighting future wildfires. But given some months it could later look like older historical fuel breaks which are densely weed infested and will move future wildfires along more rapidly. Like this one below in Southern California.



Inciweb.com

West Camino Cielo Fuel Break, Los Padres National Forest


Image - Chaparral Institute

Trabuco Ranger District of the Cleveland National Forest
fuel break along the ridgeline of the Santa Ana Mountains

Other victims in nature weren't so lucky to escape. An irreplacable world record Pacific Madrone is gone forever 

Photo: California Department Of Fish And Wildlife


Image - Mine 2014

Pacific Madrone
(Arbutus menziesii)
The largest madrone tree in the United States in 2007 (left) and in 2016 (right). The tree, located in Joshua Creek Canyon Ecological Reserve in Monterey County, was severely burned in the Soberanes Fire. A giant in Big Sur registered as the largest of its kind in the nation appears to be a casualty of the devastating wildfire. Madrones really have no defenses against wildfire other than resprouting from the trunk base after being burned up. They have a very thin bark much like that of a Manzanita. Even when they get older and have the characteristic rugged bark like the old growth one above, they are no match for a wildfire. Most likely in youth this one above was burned and resprouted from the truck. This is proven by the fact is has multiple trunks. I've photographed young Madrones in Palo Colorado Canyon and they will start out as a single trunked tree. Much like the one on the right that I photographed in 2014. But once burned, that single trunk Madrone becomes a multi-trunk resprout from it's stump's base. Sadly though this time around, the Soberanes fire was just too hot and appears to have burned down deep into the rootsystem and surrounding soil.


Image - Dr Aljos Farjon

Santa Lucia Fir (Abies bracteata)
The other potential for wildfire victim here is the highly restricted habitat belonging to the Santa Lucia Fir or Bristlecone Fir (Abies bracteata) which is endemic to the central California Coast Ranges. Many of the largest known pocket woodlands of Santa Lucia Fir at various locations (particularly Ventana Wilderness) were effected by both wildfire and Forest Service backfires. But even still at this time there has not been a lot of assessment on the conditions or status of this Santa Lucia Fir in some of the remote regions. Perhaps this year will change that. The other danger for all plants which endure an extreme or rather in this case "exceptional" drought designation for four or five years is at the end of that period trees will have produced less seed/cones (offensive strategy) as opposed to putting all it's resources into survival mode (defensive strategy) for the adult tree itself, so that when a fire does come along and wipes a forest out, there is very little release of seed resources to counter the damage caused by the catastrophic event. This goes with every tree and shrub caught in the middle of massive unprecedented drought followed by wldfire. Change could be permanent and sometime irreversible. So time will tell. This particular tree has been hit hard by previous fires in the past, but again we will have to wait and see. 
Some Local Blogger References for Central California which are far better than Main Stream Media Outlets
Big Sur Kate's Blog: Big Sur News & Events – Road Conditions & Fires
Xasauan Today Blog - Because Nature Bats Last
And what about the next big bit of bad news ??? 
And Finally the Rains Came and Deluged all of Californnia!
ABC 10 News January 2017

I won't spend any time on this portion of the ongoing disaster to this region. That will be in my second post. I mainly focussed here on Nature and what has taken place, although it has to be acknowledged that many many homes and commercial buildings were lost which devastated the human population here. But the misery and inconvenience continue and it's still not over. But maybe there is some good news as far as infrastructure repair if anyone out there is paying close attention. Stay Tuned!

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