Protecting Big Sur from Wildfires, Part 3

A tad late, but as promised, the third installment. Last time I gave you an overview of the draft Monterey County Community Wildfire Protection Plan, and a link so your could read it yourself. Knowing it is a 186 page document few would actually take time to read, I thought this segment I would focus on the “recommendations” portion of the plan.

I have chosen a couple of these recommendations as being representative of some of the controversy surrounding this document, and will post one of these here today. I would like to remind you, that this is just a draft, is still being circulated, and is being worked on almost every week. Remember, you can read this draft Wildfire Protection Plan yourself here:

One controversial recommendation (and that’s what these are, only recommendations) is maintaining year-round the “Big Box” fire break. This is a fire break that was used in the Basin Fire of 2008, and a number of fires that preceded it. This fire break has historical significance in the firefighting and local communities for fire containment.

This is what the MCCWPP recommends regarding Maintaining the “Big Box Fire Break”

“Maintain the Big Box Firebreak Background: The Big Box Firebreak, which generally surrounds much of the Monterey District of the LPNF, protects the following at-risk communities from fires originating in the LPNF, and protects the LPNF from fires originating in the following at-risk communities:

• Arroyo Seco • Big Sur • Big Sur, South Coast • Bryson-Hesperia
• Cachagua • Carmel Highlands • Carmel Valley • Carmel Valley Village • Indians • Jamesburg • Lockwood • Palo Colorado • Pine Canyon (south) • Rancho San Carlos • Rancho San Clemente
• Reliz Canyon • San Antonio Lake • Tassajara • White Rock

Recommendation: Reduce the risk to communities by maintaining the Big Box Firebreak at all times, in a condition that will result in a high probability that the firebreak will serve to stop the spread of wildfire under extreme fire conditions. Additionally, the maintenance and defense of the firebreak includes, but is not limited to, treatment on each side of the Big Box Firebreak to ensure that it is effective in stopping fire spread. The width of treatment should be determined utilizing such factors as fuel loads, topography, predominant winds, values at risk and fire behavior modeling. The location of the Big Box Firebreak is shown on the map in Appendix B-7.

Rationale: The Big Box Firebreak was used to protect at-risk communities surrounding the LPNF from the 178,000 acre Marble Cone Fire in 1977, the 86,000 acre Kirk Complex Fire in 1999, and the 163,000 acre Basin Complex Fire and 81,000 acre Indians Fire in 2008. The Basin Complex Fire burned on the west side of an 8 mile segment of the western portion of the Big Box Firebreak, consuming 26 homes and 32 other structures in the Big Sur at-risk community, and threatening approximately 300 homes in the Palo Colorado at-risk community. Maintaining and defending the Big Box Firebreak will reduce the threat of harm to firefighters and to the communities surrounding the Los Padres National Forest. To the extent the Big Box Firebreak is on non-federal land, this recommendation should be construed as recommending that federal funds be made available for its maintenance (e.g., through grants).”

One fire author explained: “Firefighters once could choose where to make their stand. Like generals in military battles, they chose advantages that the land offered — rivers, roads, rocky ridges — so that terrain became an ally. But now the presence of homes and lives to be protected has robbed them of choice. Too often now they must draw their line on inopportune ground and make their stand in dangerous places. Sometimes the price is high, as in 1990, when six Arizona firefighters died, backs to the wall, trapped on the line they defended in a canyon below a forest subdivision. Or in 1994, when fourteen firefighters died at the South Canyon Fire on the flanks of Colorado’s Storm King Mountain, battling an upslope blaze within sight of a rural subdivision.” (Thoele, Michael, Fire Line: Summer Battles of the West, 1995, p. 14.)

Seems to me that maintaining the Big Box Firebreak year-round, recommended in the MCCPP, would provide a way of making the terrain an ally, providing firefighters with a safer place from which to battle these fires, protecting their lives and ours. Of course, others opinions may differ, and all points of view on this issue are welcome in the comment section below.

Part 4 will address defensible space and regulatory restrictions, another controversial recommendation.

3 thoughts on “Protecting Big Sur from Wildfires, Part 3

  1. The region has a history of fire that seems to support keeping the Big Box Firebreak maintained year round. Highly informative series Kate.

  2. Makes a lot of sense to me. Can’t imagine why anyone would not be in favor of firebreaks that have shown they can work when maintained properly. If I remember correctly, VWA was proposing to put part of the “Big Box” into wilderness recently, which would have also make life saving maintenance difficult or impossible. Why would anyone want to make a recommendation like this after experiencing the horror of the wildfires in 2008?

  3. All but 100 yards or so of the “Big Box” near the VWA’s proposed Molera Wilderness is already within the Ventana Wilderness. The VWA proposal would not have made maintaining the Big Box any more difficult or easy than it already is. The VWA proposal, in fact, carefully excluded the one non-wilderness ridge in the area.

    The main concern with keeping the Big Box perpetually maintained is whether the benefits outweigh the costs. During the 3 fires in which the Big Box line has been used, the Forest Service has never had any difficulty opening the line before the fire reached it. Even during the incredibly ferocious Marble Cone Fire, where the Big Box line had to be created from scratch, opening it in time was not a problem. The fact that the Big Box line failed in the Big Sur area during the Basin Complex fire also suggests that money might be more effectively spent elsewhere (on fuel modification projects closer to residences, for example).

    Perpetual maintenance of the Big Box would not only be expensive in terms of scarce fire prevention dollars, but also costly in terms of environmental degradation (which would also require expensive mitigation). I look forward to hearing more about the potential benefits, but I am so far unconvinced that keeping the line maintained is a worthwhile strategy.

    It’s important to remember that by far the greatest danger to the “at-risk” communities is not a fire coming out of the Ventana Wilderness, but a fire that starts within those communities or along the adjacent roads – a type of fire the Big Box line can do nothing to prevent or stop. Even in the Basin Complex fire, the majority of homes destroyed were lost to a fire that started well outside the Wilderness and the Big Box line (just above the Coast Gallery) and did not cross the Big Box or the Wilderness to reach those homes.

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