Protecting Big Sur from Wildfires, Part I

This is a story that has spanned the last 18 months, and came into being as a result of the Basin Complex Fire of 2008. It is the story of the Monterey County Community Wildfire Protection Plan. (MCCWPP)

It embraces the efforts of many, many volunteers, and thousands of hours of planning. Now, this draft plan is in jeopardy, because the Ventana Branch of the Sierra Club does not want this plan approved, and Gary Patton, a lawyer out of Santa Cruz, is taking to the airwaves, supposedly as a neutral reporter, but really as a spokesperson for environmental groups without disclosing that he is “of counsel” to at least one of them in this fight against the MCCWPP.

I am not “of counsel” to anyone in this battle, but I must admit, I am not neutral. It affects my life, my property, my neighbors, the wildlife, and this land and place that I love.

At this point, the only agency, of the 20 involved, that has not signed on to the MCCWPP is the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. They are afraid of a law suit, as has been inferred in a letter from Gary Patton. In a future post, I will reproduce this letter.

This is a complex issue, involving many people, and organizations, and it has a long history. It is time to reveal some of that which has been going on behind the scenes, as those of us who live in the wilderness, or on its edge, face the challenges of protecting both the environment and the lives and property of those who live amidst it, and also seek to protect it from devastating wildfires like that experienced two years ago.

As is usual, emotions are strong on both sides of this issue, and compromise seems difficult, if not impossible. However, perhaps we can find a way to achieve that which is necessary – that is protecting the Big Sur Coast for all that live here, travel here, and love her.

Devastating wildfires, which close the only available road for locals and tourists alike, come within inches of historical landmarks like Deetjen’s, Nepenthe, and the Henry Miller Library, must be controlled. We cannot sit idly by and do nothing. It is up to us – all of us – who love Big Sur.

I will have many posts about this issue in the coming weeks and months as we try to find the solutions which make sense for the protection of this coast. They will include the letters, relevant portions of the MCCWPP, radio transcripts, rebuttals, and any information I can obtain so that we can all educate ourselves about what would be best to preserve this magical place for ALL to enjoy – not just the two currently major players – the people who live here, and the environmentalist groups who don’t want us to come up with a workable solution for uncontrolled future wildfire.

I will also provide my readers with the point of view of as many of those involved as I possibly can, so you can come to your own informed decision. Please share with friends and others. This is an important issue, and it is coming to its flash point.

10 thoughts on “Protecting Big Sur from Wildfires, Part I

  1. I’m really anxious to hear more of this, who is on what side and what are the sticking points.

  2. Another good blog Kate! Careful with those words though
    I’m not sure ‘flash point’ is a karmic end to an article
    about wild fires!

  3. As far as I know, the concerns of the Sierra Club and others are limited to one or two aspects of the plan (and by no means the most important aspects). Unless there’s something going on that I haven’t yet heard of, I think it’s a bit unfair to say that environmentalists “don’t want us to come up with a workable solution for uncontrolled future wildfire.” Having concerns about the current draft plan is not the same as not wanting a plan. I haven’t talked to anyone that doesn’t think we need a plan or who doesn’t agree with 90% of what’s in the current draft.

  4. I am glad to see you disagree with my characterizations, and I greatly hope that I am wrong, but the letter Gary Patton wrote, and the announcements he has made on KUSP on behalf of the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club show that he and the organizations he represents are against most of the recommendations currently written into the draft of this plan. I will be posting the relevant recommendations, the letters, and transcripts of his Land Watch announcements on future dates, and I think it will become clear why I have made the characterizations I have. I would like to see a resolution of the differences, rather than an escalation of these differences, and sincerely hope this is possible.

  5. Thanks for tackling this issue on your blog Kate. Xasauan
    may or may not be correct in his/her (BTW why hide your identity
    behind this pseudonym, I don’t get it) assessment that the
    Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club and VWA support fuel reduction
    efforts now. They have not been supporters in the past.
    You are correct that this is a complex issue and that emotions are running high. I, for one am feeling a little thin skinned
    (sorry for snapping at you xasauan)and angry. Defending my life,
    civil rights and proprty during the Basin Complex Fire of 2008
    will do that.

    Simply put, the MCCWPP is a document that allows communities at risk to:
    1. Define the wildland urban interface (WUI).
    2. Express their opinion about law and policy
    revisions that those communities would like to see
    enacted in an effort to promote reduction of overgrown
    hazardous fuel zones.

    The document, when signed, is a gateway to federal dollars
    for conducting fuel reduction work. Additionally, at our last BSMAAC meeting, Sherry Tune, District Ranger for the Monterey District of the LPNF confirmed that both NEPA and CEQA environmental studies could possibly be conducted (multi-million
    dollar tasks) with funds made available by the Federal Government
    through the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. No signed MCCWPP,
    no bucks for studies. No bucks for studies, no work in the WUI.
    No work in the Wui, no launch of Firescape Monterey. No consolidated focus on the unique aspects of fire behavior in Monterey County…. Well you get the drift. More of the same
    but enhanced by global warming.

    An important fact that organizations like the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club and VWA fail to understand, the MCCWPP is
    “ONLY” a “recommendation” document. It is not by nature a “project”. If “work” were to commence, appropriate environmental study would precede that work. Pronouncements
    on KUSP’s “Land use report” to the contrary, The MCCWPP does not open the door to “clear cutting” 60% of Monterey County.

    The second peice to this issue is what I consider to be a free speech, first amendment right to express disatisfaction with the status quo. The recommendation section of the MCCWPP is what is giving VC of the SC and VWA heartburn. Bottom line on this important part of the plan, without a comprehensive effort to streamline the permitting aspects of creating defensible space
    and eliminating the jurisdictional overlays that complicate
    legal fuel reduction work, we as residents and those that love Big Sur are destined to endure ever more explosive fire seasons.

    Butch Kronlund
    President, CPOA

  6. Butch,

    WordPress automatically logs me into WordPress blogs, like this one, as Xasauan, because I registered a WordPress blog with that name. It was nothing to do with wishing to remain anonymous (although there’s nothing wrong with that, either).

    The vast majority of property owners need no permit of any kind to create defensible space around their homes. If you know of anyone who does need a permit and is experiencing any kind of problem in getting one, I would really like to know about it so that I, as a member of the Monterey County Planning Commission, can look into what needs to be done to fix the problem. The maintenance of defensible space, as you know, is mandatory under state law.

    I haven’t seen Gary Patton’s letter or heard his comments on KUSP, but I have heard people express concerns about the county taking a position in favor of large-scale fuel modification programs in the backcountry – both because of the obviously large environmental impacts and because there is reason to doubt that, in a chaparral environment, such programs are capable of meaningfully reducing fire danger.

    In any event, I hope the debate over the visionary, what-would-we-do-if-the-feds-gave-us-an-unlimited-budget-and-suspended-environmental-laws issues can be separated from the more practical what-do-we-need-to-do-to-get-defensible-space-created-around-more-homes issue. That’s why I’d like to hear from anyone who is having trouble getting a permit for work needed to create defensible space. If we’re going to streamline the process, we need to know what and where the current logjams are.

    Keith Vandevere

  7. Thanks for doing the work to bring this issue forward,
    Kate. The conditions in the back country two years after the Chalk fire are at a stage where doing the right thing could really change the fire environment long-term, and nature is speaking to us…

  8. Keith- Thanks for joining the discussion. Your experience as a Planning Commissioner gives you a unique set of intellectual and experiential tools to bring to the topic. I think though that you and everyone interested enough to have a passionate position regarding fuel reduction work in the WUI should first make the effort to read and understand the plan. Don’t rely on what I or any other interested party tells you.

    Regarding your assertion that the vast majority of property owners don’t need to get permits for PRC 4291 (State mandated
    fire clearance around structures), I have personal experience in this area. Suffice to say, there is a requirement for securing
    permits and engaging in hiring various consultants. It is both costly and time consuming.

    Your point about the 100 foot clearance issue does expose what I consider to be an important feature of the MCCWPP. By defining the WUI as it does, the plan’s authors are saying that Highway 1 is “NOT” the new western flank of the “Big Box Firebreak”. Allowing and even encouraging fuel modification on State and Federal lands is the only way that wild fires don’t escalate into
    episodes like the Basin Complex and Chalk Peak fires of 2008.

    The scope of the MCCWPP extends well beyond just the issue of “defensable space” around one persons home, one home at a time. It takes a crack at encouraging holistic solutions and makes recommendations to simplify the regulatory process. I think that is probably where the friction in this debate comes from.

    The majority of us that live in Big Sur think it is a good idea to work out a plan that doesn’t involve getting burned out once every 8 to 10 years. A plan that recognizes that fire has an important function in this environment which has not been able to be expressed fully in the last 100 years or so due to suppression doctrine. A plan that allows reasonable steps to be taken to allow the protection of lives, property and the environment, in that order of importance, to gain enough traction
    to be effective.

    Butch Kronlund
    President CPOA

  9. Here is a link to Monterey County’s guidelines on creating defensible space that might be helpful for people wondering about whether or not they need a permit for the clearance work they have in mind:

    Most permit requirements, needless to say, arise as a result of state and/or federal environmental laws. The main things that can set off a permit requirement are removal of trees larger than a certain limit (generally six inches in diameter 2 feet from ground level), impacting sensitive habitat, exposing soil to erosion, and accelerating sediment runoff into waterways. Defensible space can be created on most, but obviously not all, properties without doing any of these things.

    When a permit is required, it’s important to remember that not all permits are expensive and time consuming to get. There can be a big difference between a county administrative permit and a coastal development permit under the jurisdiction of the Coastal Commission. People who think they may need a permit should call the county Planning Department at (831) 755-5025 to find out whether they really do need a permit and, if so, what they need to do to get it.

    What I’m most interested in finding out about are the details of any situations where people are being prevented from getting needed permits due to excessive cost or other issues, or where work to create defensible space is being unreasonably delayed by the permitting process.


  10. Kate, thank you for providing a forum for this discussion as it is vitally important in creating a fire safety plan that is both inclusive and effective.

    First of all, there is a fundamental fact that everyone must understand. Wildfires in the Big Sur and Los Padres National Forest are going to continue to occur no matter what anyone does. Wildfires are not the fault of the fire service, past fire suppression activities, or environmental groups. Second, by definition, wildfires cannot be controlled. They go out when either the weather changes or some other natural factor comes into play. The best we can do when living in a fire prone environment is to try and create fire safe communities. This means starting from the house out instead of from the wildland in. Unfortunately, the dominant approach to wildland fire safety has been to call for massive fuel treatments in wildland areas. We have been doing this for years, yet with every passing decade, more fires occur, more homes are lost, and more money is spent on more fuel treatments. It is a failed approach because of the expense, the impossible logistics, unaddressed structural fire risks, and the negative impact it has on the natural environment (an environment that attracted folks to move close to nature in the first place).

    Homes burn because they are flammable. What typically happens is that embers land on some vulnerable surface (gaps in roofing, stacks of fire wood, play structures, etc.), no one is there to extinguish the ignition when it is small, and the house becomes engulfed. This happens in nearly every wildfire, regardless of what kind of vegetation treatment has been done. For example, in the 2007 Witch Creek Fire in San Diego County, more than 1,000 homes burned due to ember ignition, many igniting an hour before the fire front arrived (while it was still three miles away). In fact, often times homes ignited the surrounding wildland areas, not the other way around.

    Of course, creating defensible space around structures is a crucial component of creating fire safe communities, but unless the whole fire risk reduction equation is addressed, fire has a way of finding the weakest link – be it a trash can that is too close to the garage or dried leaves in the rain gutters.

    I’d be glad to answer any questions anyone may have regarding any of these issues as they relate to the CWPP. For background, I’m the director of the California Chaparral Institute, a non-profit science and educational organization that focuses on helping the public and government agencies understand and appreciate the value of native shrubland ecosystems, especially the chaparral. I’ve also been trained as a wildland firefighter.

    I encourage everyone to visit our website as it has a comprehensive list of documents on how wildfire operates and how best to protect homes and communities from fire risk. The best place to start is our Protecting your Home Page here:

    Another page of interest will be our Fire and Science page to understand the role of fire in the chaparral:

    I am looking forward to the future dialogue.

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