Marble-Cone Fire of 1977

The following was sent to me by Brian Steen. This is his first hand account of the Marble-Cone Fire of 1977.

Do you remember where you were on August 1, 1977?  Most people probably don’t, but I do. That’s the date the Marble Cone Fire broke out in the Ventana Wilderness in the mountains behind California’s Big Sur coast, eventually burning 175,000 acres before it was controlled. 

I was working with the US Forest Service in Big Sur as a Fire Prevention Technician.  My job was to inspect every house in Big Sur from Molera State Park to Big Creek to make sure a 30-foot clearance of flammable vegetation had been established and maintained.  Most people had created this clearance, although I usually asked them to do more. In this capacity, I got to know most residents living in Big Sur. 

Going further back to 1974, before I arrived in Big Sur in 1976, an unprecedentedsnowstorm came through and dumped several feet of snow on the Ventana Wilderness.  Many trees, particularly tan oaks, broke under the weight of the snow.  Many trails became impassable, and most were not reopened for years except for the popular Pine Ridge Trail which led to Sykes Hot Springs, a popular destination for those willing to backpack the 12 miles distance, in and out. Forest Service scientists came to measure the down trees covering the area and concluded that an average of four feet of dead and decaying wood covered most of the wilderness area.  This was an incredible fire hazard and was a time bomb waiting for an ignition source. 

That ignition source came on August 1, 1977, when an unusual lightning storm rolled through northern California starting over 300 fires.  Most of these fires were contained, but a few kept burning requiring available firefighting resources of men and equipment. A few fires had ignited in the Ventana and our local crews responded in tanker trucks to extinguish a few fires accessible from the Coast Ridge Road. But there were four fires in the heart of the Ventana that kept burning.I previously had been sent to work on a fire near Lake Cachuma in the hills above Santa Barbara.  When I heard about the Ventana fire I remember thinking, “I hope those guys can get it.” I shortly was flown back home to the Monterey airport and enroute could see the smoke billowing up from the Ventana.  By this time the four fires had burned together creating the Marble Cone inferno.  This name was the combination of Marble Peak and Ventana Cone.  

Firefighting crews began arriving from across the US and were stationed at several locations around the fire’s perimeter.  I remember speaking to one crew member who flew from Salt Lake City saying once their plane got to altitude, they could see the smoke from California rising in columns like huge cumulus clouds. The prevailing winds coming off the Pacific blew the smoke easterly which created bad, smokey air in the San Joaquin Valley and the Sierra foothills. 

I worked as a Public Information Officer  during the fire to provide fire maps, equipment, and the latest manpower numbers.  Working at the USFS Big Sur Station, I met with concerned residents to answer their questions and to provide updates. Two fire camps were set up, one in Molera State Park and another Flory’s Camp, closer to the fire on the Coast Ridge Road.  I would show up at Molera to get some food and remember setting at a picnic table and talking to a grizzled old guy who was from the rolling hills of Virginia.  He had been recruited as a “cat skinner” to cut fire line. He went out on a D6 cat but came back saying “No way will I drive a cat up those steep ridges with flames all around me.”  He asked to work instead in the safety of the fire camp and was assigned to sharpen tools which was just fine with him. 

I spent most of my time at Flory’s Camp near the fire to get up-to-date information,to fax (a new technology then) current fire-line maps to the SF Bay Area mediaand to take media reps and VIPS’s on short tours of the fire.  One VIP was a total surprise.  Sydney Pointier was a current guest at the luxurious Ventana Inn located at the beginning of the Coast Ridge Road.  Seeing all the commotion of trucks and bulldozers going up the road, he asked the Ventana concierge if he could get a better look.  Wanting to please their VIP guest, Portier was driven up to the camp where I met him.  Much to everyone’s surprise, he was wearing a long dark red silk bathrobe! I greeted him but told him he couldn’t wear that robe.  I took him over to the supply tent where he was given fire retardantNomex pants and a shirt to wear.  I put him into a Jeep and we slowly proceededup to where he could safely look at hotshot crews setting backfires.  A backfire is a fire intentionally set by trained firefighters where the controlled backfire is set and burns downhill into the wildfire cancelling each other out. There was lots going on. It was very hot, smokey and dusty and my passenger was getting uncomfortable and asked to turn around. We returned to get his robe and I drove him back down the road to the Ventana Inn.  I told him he could keep the fireclothing, which he thanked me for although I doubted he’d have much use for a Nomex fire outfit in Hollywood. 

A containment line had been established around the perimeter of the fire utilizing a network of roads which had been used by hotshot crews to set backfires. Even though contained, the fire continued to burn.  I remember watching a DC6 airplane flying in over the Pacific and down through the narrow Big Sur River Canyon to make a Phoschek (fire retardant) drop.  I watched it go into the canyon and expected to see it pull up after his drop and head easterly.  When I didn’t see the plane, I turned around and much to my surprise, saw it heading west over the ocean. With amazing skill, he had made his drop and did a 180 degree turn around in a narrow, smoke and fire filled canyon!

Another bit of amazing flying skill was shown by a helicopter pilot who was taking infra-red photos through the thick smoke to get an image of the fire’s edges below.   I had been assigned the job of his spotter as I knew the terrain well. I met the pilot and his helicopter at the Bottcher’s Gap helipad. He motioned me to get in and to secure my seat and shoulder belt.  I asked about closing the door and he said, “We don’t use doors.”   With that puzzling statement, we gently lifted about five feetand then dove off the cliff’s edge as the chopper picked up speed.  We flew a short distance to the north fork of the Little Sur where the fire had mostly stopped. One we saw flames; the pilot turned his chopper over 90 degrees and began filming with a camera attached to the chopper’s right runner.  In other words, I was strapped into a helicopter flying 90 degrees sideways with no doors looking straight down into a forest fire.  Crazy? Yes, but successful! We returned to Bottcher’s where he dropped me off and took off to Flory’s fire camp to deliver the fire line images.

Also, at Bottcher’s Gap, was a bulldozer (a Komatsu D7) which had been used to cross nearby ranch properties to create fire line was left parked as the different property owners had repaired access road and fences. To now get the cat back out to the highway, a low-boy truck and trailer were driven up Palo Colorado Road to load the cat and then drive slowly down to Highway One.   This narrow and windy road is a challenge to most drivers in passenger vehicles.   To get a diesel truck and trailer loaded with a D7 cat was another matter.  Anticipating this, the driver had brought a about a dozen old auto tires which were used as follows:  he would slowly proceed down the road until the cat lacked clearance to clear low hanging redwood tree limbs.  I worked with a couple other USFS guys to place the tires on the road, so the cat driver could back the cat down the lowboy on to the tires that protected the road from the bulldozer’s tracks.  The driver slowly advanced on the tires as we rushed other tires up to the front.  He could then drive the cat back up on the low boy.  And thus, we proceeded for maybe a couple of hours until we reached Highway at the bottom.

The fire, although contained, continued to burn until October when rains extinguished the last embers.    USFS initially opened various hiking trails that had been damaged by the fire.  These trails are now maintained by the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary.

Another post Marble Cone fire job was for chain saw crews to walk down the Big Sur River to cut up fire burned logs which had fallen across the river into 18”chunks.  The theory was to cut up trees that could make dangerous log jams.  The cut-up chunks would hopefully bob down the river with winter rains and out to the ocean where they mostly ended up on the Molera State Park Beach.If you walk the Molera beach today, you might see some of these old segments that represent the last evidence of the 1977 Marble Cone fire.

11 thoughts on “Marble-Cone Fire of 1977

  1. So long ago! I was assigned on a hand crew about a week after it started. Back then we did 21 day assignments. It was so brutal lack of food ,logistics fog fire and just a mess!

  2. I was a frequent Big Sur visitor from UC Santa Barbara. My girlfriend and I were wandering Hwy 1 and environs in my red VW camper van when the fire broke out. We soon heard the road was closed both north and south, so we were willingly “trapped”. Zero traffic. We went to Pfeifer beach, Esalen hot springs (open and free then after midnite), Nepenthe, and more, but most memorable was being out on the built-in Bixby Bridge benches late at night with a huge red glow up the canyon and along the ridge from the spreading fire. That was even brighter at Molera. Both scary and romantic, at the time (we were young and in love). An old-timer sitting out front at the market said “We’ve been expecting this. These redwoods are torches, waiting to be lit. This could be it. This canyon hasn’t really burnt for at least a century. When it does, this whole town will be gone.” I’ve never forgotten that; hasn’t quite happened yet, but…?

  3. 1958,Nacimiento lake fire. West side/digger pine forest. CDF Foreman Dick Gillette(Lockwood,S.Monterey County). Dick never had any of us crew crew start a back-fire(as it was called in the day). Only he was in charge of starting a back-fire.

  4. After a few seasons in the Forest Service I was in graduate school in Palo Alto and quickly recognized Marble Cone’s cloud plume far to the south. Though I never returned to the fire-lines, my eldest son and daughter each accumulated more fire time in one season than I did in all of mine. The Basin Complex fire was my daughter’s first fire. Her tanker crew, based at Dry Meadows on the Stanislaus NF eventually fought fires from LA to northern CA, and Big Sur to Nevada. Quite a season for a District tanker crew. P.S. I spent one season on tanker 181 in Greenville and we all know what eventually happened there. Now even Lahaina is suffering that fate.

  5. I was USFS Forestry Aide in July of 1977, making $5.25 an hour. I thought I hit it big! Stationed at Black Rock Station (8K elev.) on a tanker crew located up Sherman Pass Rd. in Sequoia Nat’l Forest, Cannell Meadow District. Later, I worked at Bald Mountain (10K elev.) lookout tower which had fantastic sweeping view of the Kaweahs, Mt. Whitney and Olancha Peak. Remember the ‘mountain line’? Lol! It was a great job for an 19 year-old! Lots of cute guys. 😉 I remember when the Marble Cone started. We eventually sent some of our crews. Yeah, 300 fires at all once! California was on fire. Then, a lightning fire started two miles from our station. We thought it was going to burn down. A thousand plus firefighters came from every state. Fourteen firefighters were women. The fire camp brought in cons to man the commissary. They were great cooks! They would fire up steaks, scramble plates of eggs, pancakes, bacon, give us whole pies and filled our canteens with coffee. After a brutal 24-hour shift, I would eat two whole plates and fall dead asleep on the ground; my hard hat was my pillow. Our mop-up lasted TWO months!

  6. Every fire (context) is different, but the principles remain the same.

    I (my consulting business) sponsored a seminar with invited speakers on a university campus in the 1980’s. A fire researcher from the USFS Western Region Fire Lab gave a talk wherein he shared the follow two bits (among others) of interesting facts about wildland (shrubland) fire (as I recall):

    1. In the flame-front, only fuels less than one-half inch in diameter actually burn. The temperature (radiant) gets very hot briefly, then subsides as the flame-front moves on, depending upon wind speed and convection. [Of course, small “hot spots” can continue to burn or smolder. WT]

    2. Combustible structures are not ignited by radiant heat or convection beyond about (less than, but almost, according to the data) thirty feet. Current USFS Fire Lab recommendations are a five-foot structure-protection zone (free of combustibles [including bark/mulch WT]), an “intensive” thirty-foot (from the structure) fuel separation zone, and a one hundred-foot (from the structure) less intensive fuel separation zone.

    Structures can, however, be ignited from hot embers hitting a combustible material from much farther away—a mile or more, depending upon the size of the ember and convection/wind conditions. The temperature of the structure and other combustibles influence how quickly ignition and fire development occurs and consumes fuel. Unlike the wildland fuels, structure fires tend to continue to burn, and burn at a higher temperature (the ignition temperature of wood is over 400 degrees F, but lower than 500). A structure fire can burn for extended periods at well over 1,000 degrees F.

    Here’s a link to one of the top USFS fire researchers:

  7. I think Ruth Albee (my former landlord in Palo Colorado Canyon back in the ‘80’s) was the fire lookout who called these fires in. She remained both a US and CA lookout up on Chews Ridge into her 90’s. I always loved going up to bring supplies or just visit when she was on duty.

  8. I remember very clearly the 2 or 3 days prior to the Marble Cone Fire there was a gnarly heat wave. One of those where it’s 90° at midnight at 1000 feet elevation. Super low humidity. The day it started a low pressure system from the Southeast had moved in from a sub tropical system off of northern Mexico. There were these dark ominous clouds moving in, still and muggy. My friend Rick and I were out surfing and we heard these deep rumbles off to the southeast. Lightning had struck and you could see the smoke off in the distance from where the lightning strikes occurred. It seems like the fire burned forever, it was a historical event. My sister who lived in upper Carmel Valley had to evacuate as the fire spread in all directions. I remember having to go up there and move them to PG. I remember the National Guard moving in in early September convoys of trucks heading south through Point Lobos when I was heading north one evening. I think they finally contained it on September 20 seven weeks after it started. Marble Cone became a fire that all Big Sur fires after would be judged by. I remember Fire Fighter/ Fire behavior Guru Dennis Burns at a briefing at one of our more recent fires saying that Marble Cone was his first ever fire and how difficult and tricky Big Sur fires were because of how the humidity actually dramatically falls at night opposed to the reverse and of course the steep terrain. Thanks to all those firefighters that fought all those fires.

  9. I hiked up to the coast ridge road camp with a fellow Ventana employee for a better view. We managed to have enjoyed a big steak at the camp and even rode down the mountain with you and Sidney Portier.

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