BIG SUR, Calif. -
Wilderness areas of the Los Padres National Forest are still healing from a scar left behind by the Soberanes Fire last summer. This area is renowned recreationally for its trails which stretch into pristine back country.
“People think that fire will clear the trails and make them open,” said Steve Benoit, a volunteer wilderness ranger with the Ventana Wilderness Alliance (VWA). “But, what happens is the vegetation holds back the soil. So, when the fire goes through, the soil tends to run downhill like a river."
Couple that with one of the wettest winters on record and many trails are washed away, blocked, or buried.
"We've only really just started really getting into some of those areas,” said Chip Laugharn, a battalion chief with the Los Padres National Forest. “And we need to determine if it's safe for the public. Public safety's always number one. And then, is the environment stable enough that we won't be damaging sensitive habitat or hurting anything that's out there?"
The forest service is relying on volunteers to survey and fix the trails.
"We would not be able to do the work without them,” Laugharn added.
Volunteers like Benoit, along with nineteen other volunteer wilderness rangers with the VWA. He know they have a lot of work ahead of them.
"We have over three hundred miles of trail that we're trying to survey,” said Benoit. “We want to see what the condition of the trail is, when we can open these trails to the public. Which I don't see that happening for some time."
I followed Benoit and three other volunteers up the Pine Ridge Trail from Big Sur to take a look at the damage.
"We just walk along and we take notes of what's going on and things that need to be cleared that we can't get past, we'll spend some time with saws and clear it,” said Benoit.
Only traditional tools like hand saws are allowed in the wilderness area to reduce disturbance to wildlife. This can slow things down—but these volunteers don’t seem to mind.
"Once you go out there and see the beauty of this wilderness area, people feel that they have the obligation to protect and take care of our wilderness and our trails,” added Benoit.
One of the biggest challenges remaining is accessibility.
"We cannot get to some of our trailheads because of road closures right now,” he added, noting the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, Paul’s Slide and Mud Creek closures.
This could stretch work out for months if not longer—which may mean some of your favorite trails could remain closed in the meantime.
Laugharn is asking one thing of the public: "Allow this to heal so we can properly make sure that it's safe for you to visit and make sure that it's going to stay sustainable for future generations,”