10 thoughts on “Molera Wilderness Area

  1. Wilderness designation does hamper firefighter access. Certainly modifications can be addressed once a fire has started but in the case of Marble-Cone initial attack was denied use of mechanical equipment.
    My cousin responded initial attack on Marble-Cone and has repeated many times that they had the fire dead at 200 acres but could not employ their saws and bulldozers. We all know it burned 200,000 + acres.
    I am not judging, I like Wilderness designated areas but by definition fire access is limited.

  2. I would add to the above comment that Mike is retired Cal-Fire who comes from a long-line of firefighters, has fought many fires here in Big Sur, who is very familiar with the area and whose brother fought fires here. Thanks, Mike for your comment, a long-time friend of bigsurkate – well, since the beginning.

  3. Does one suppose that “Buffer Zones” will be needed around the boundries of wilderness areas ?

  4. There’s seems to a lot of confusion with regard to fighting fire within designated Wilderness, and perhaps understandably so given that it’s guided by some fairly complex legislation. My understanding of the basics with regard to federal lands, based upon research and personal communcation with USFS management, is that chainsaws and portable pumps can be used immediately, as soon as there’s a smoke. No special permission necessary – get in there and take care of it. Bulldozers, however, need the OK from the Regional Forester, which in the this case is in Vallejo, CA. I’ve been told that said permission is only a phone call away at best, but can take up to two or three hours to obtain at worse. The request can be submitted as soon as smoke is seen.That said, many USFS personnel have a strong respect for the Wilderness Act and may take the time necessary to make sure that tools as resource-damaging as dozers are in fact needed; that it can’t be handled with hand tools (including chainsaws). So yes, Wilderness designation does put a tiny constraint on firefighting, but in my opinion not at all to the extent that many people believe it does.

  5. What is the point in all the effort to make this a “state” wilderness area anyway? It is located in a remote area that is all brush and steep hillside. No one ever uses it because there are no trails within it. It will always be safe from from develoment because it is in a State Park. Since it is not a “federal” wilderness what is the response for permission from the state level to allow fire fighting access? It is not the same as calling Vallejo. So what is wrong with just keeping it park of Andrew Molera State Park? How is it not safe the way it is now?

  6. Boon, with all due respect, I have become the friend of many fire fighters as a result of my coverage of the Chalk Fire in October 2008, and in the experiences they have shared with me, getting permission is not as easy as you suggest. Sometimes, three hours is enough to turn a 200 acre fire into an eventual 200,000 acre fire, as Mike’s comment above recounts.

    I have also read most of the legislation governing fighting wildfires in and around Wilderness areas, and like all legislation, it is open to interpretation. That’s how we lawyers make a living – interpreting legislation, and there are always AT LEAST two sides, often dozens.

    “Tiny constraint” to you, and others wishing for Wilderness designation is huge for those whose homes and lives are threatened. I have Sur-vived the Wild Fire of 1996, the Kirk-Hare Fire of 1999, the Plaskett 2 Fire of 2000, and the Chalk Fire of 2008. There is nothing more frightening that seeing flames headed towards one’s home. The very people who live here are the ones most likely to spot and report wildfires and protect this land that we all love. Unless VWA is willing to work with those who live here, none of us will be able to protect it.

  7. I guess the idea of the wilderness does not bother me at all since the biggest threat of fire starts is actually in the highway corridor and residential areas, not the back country. While the large fires you have all cited burned in the wilderness, we have to remember that Basin started as Gallery inside the firebreak and moved out. The “Big Box” really means nothing since very few resident have made any effort to clear effectively to protect their homes or neighborhoods anyways.

  8. The Marble-Cone fire started as at least two separate fires (The Marble Fire and the Cone Fire), just as the Basin Complex started as the Gallery and Basin fires. While firefighters did keep the Marble Fire from burning west into inhabited areas and may have come close to getting it out entirely when it was still small, the same cannot be said for the unmanned and entirely out of control Cone Fire deeper in the Wilderness. In any event, dozers arrived in plenty of time to carve the original Big Box line and the 6,000 firefighters assigned to the fire were largely successful in containing the fire within that line.

    The Big Box line was opened again in plenty of time during the Kirk Complex fire. In fact, in spite of vigorous burnout efforts, the fire went out before reaching much of the line. The Big Box line was opened for a third time during the Basin Complex. Again, in plenty of time. They even had time to open some of the rougher sections with hand crews.

    Most of the homes burned in the Basin Complex were burned by the Gallery Fire, which started outside the Big Box and burned across non-wilderness private and public land to reach those homes. The failures of the Big Box line during the Basin Complex did not happen because the line wasn’t open, but due to adverse conditions and, possibly, due to the fact that only about 3,000 firefighters (half of what was on hand to work the line during Marble-Cone) were assigned to the fire.

    While I have more than once experienced, and can fully appreciate, the terror of having a wildfire bear down on my home, that terror doesn’t alter the fact that dozers have never failed to complete lines around fires originating in the Ventana Wilderness long before they reached inhabited areas. In other cases, firefighters have put out fires in the Ventana Wilderness (like the Cienega Fire) long before they reached the Wilderness boundaries without ever needing to use dozers.

    As Firefox points out, by far the biggest threat to life and property in Big Sur comes from fires started well outside the Wilderness along the highway (or other roads – as in the case of the Chalk Fire). If such a fire makes a quick run up one of the inhabited canyons, before there’s time to launch a major firefighting effort, it could be a real tragedy.

    Worrying about Wilderness while facing a danger of this magnitude is, in my opinion, like worrying about dandruff when you’ve got cancer of the eyeballs.

  9. As usual, XT, an excellent rendition of the facts and history. While you and firefox are correct about where most of the HUMAN-caused fires start, near roads of some sort, LIGHTNING-caused fires can start anywhere, as were the Basin Complex and Kirk-Hare Complex fires – one in June, and one in September. Lightning is no respecter of Wilderness lines or designations. Where a lightning strike touches down is, as far as I know, impossible to predict.

    As I understand Mike Caplin’s presentation, the big box that would be “interrupted” by the Molera designation, is one that is used not just to protect the Big Sur Valley from fires started in the wilderness, but to protect the areas to the north, such as Bixby area, Palo Colorado, etc. from fires that may start in the Valley, and proceed into the Wilderness and north. I’m sure you will enlighten me, if this is incorrect.

    BTW, I am not against Wilderness designations, and had no problems with the Willow Creek addition to the Silver Peak Wilderness area in 2002. My only request was that the boundary of the Wilderness area be set off by 500 ft. from the boundary of my property, and that was done for all in-holders.

  10. The portion of the Big Box line in question descends a steep ridge from Post Summit to the South Fork of the Little Sur River. All but a very short bit (probably less than 100 yards – about half way between Post Summit and the River) of this ridgeline is already inside the Ventana Wilderness. The reason this tiny piece is not in Wilderness is because a triangle of Molera State Park stretches east just far enough to touch this ridge. Because the tiny piece of line not currently in Wilderness is so short, and because mechanized equipment cannot even reach it without traveling through the Ventana Wilderness, designating this bit as Wilderness would not affect what can or cannot be done with the Big Box line in any way.

    As Wilderness designation does not prevent use of mechanized equipment during fires or other emergencies (which can be interpreted pretty broadly), the real concern here is coming from people who want to see the Big Box kept open and maintained by mechanized equipment year round. I don’t think that’s likely to happen (mainly because the fire protection benefits would be very slight and the financial and environmental costs would be very high), but designation of the Molera Wilderness would not make year round maintenance of the Big Box any more difficult to achieve than it already is. Clearing just the tiny piece of line not already in Wilderness wouldn’t do anything at all for fire safety and, as mentioned above, dozers cannot even reach the place without traveling through the Ventana Wilderness (unless they want to build a new road across some exceptionally rough country just to clear brush from a hundred yard section of a remote ridge – which isn’t too likely).

    The bottom line is that for all practical purposes 100% of the Big Box line from Post Summit to the River is already subject to whatever restrictions Wilderness designation provides. This is why it never occurred to anyone to include a setback from that line when drawing up the Molera Wilderness proposal (as they did for the non-Wilderness line on the East Molera ridge). When Mike Caplin began making an issue out of the proposed Wilderness touching, or “interrupting” the Big Box, however, the proponents made clear that they have no problem with creating a setback for the Big Box as well.

    A setback from the Big Box would leave a small, harmless triangle of non-Wilderness surrounded on two sides by the Ventana Wilderness and on one by the new Molera Wilderness. If it does nothing else, this setback should certainly remove any question of the proposed Wilderness “interrupting” the Big Box.

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