Monterey County

Big Sur has long history of massive wildfires

A look at Big Sur wildfires

MONTEREY COUNTY, Calif. - UPDATE 8/24/2016 6:45 PM:

The Soberanes Fire is a reminder to Big Sur residents how devastating fires can be.
The massive fire has burned 88,964 acres in the Carmel, Big Sur and Los Padres National Forest areas.

We decided to take a look at some of the other large fires that have burned in Big Sur over the years.

-The Basin Complex Fire was started by lightning in June 2008. It merged with the nearby Indians Fire and consumed more than 162,800 acres in the Big Sur area. 58 structures were lost.

-The 1999 Kirk Complex Fire burnt more than 85,000 acres in the Tassajara area.

-The Marble Cone Fire, which was started by lightning, burned more than 177,866 acres in the Big Sur area in 1977.

Smaller yet still devastating fires include the 1,086-acre Tassajara Fire, which destroyed 12 homes and eight outbuildings in 2015. The Pfeiffer Fire in 2013 burned 917 acres but damaged or destroyed 28 structures.

Fire Chief Martha Karstens is a longtime resident of Big Sur and has been with the Big Sur Fire Brigade since the 1990's. She said fire crews today are facing some of the same problems crews faced on the fire lines years ago, like poor radio service, rugged terrain and single lane dirt roads.

"We still have the same challenges in that it's the same narrow dirt road back there," Karstens said. "It's still a challenge for the equipment and personnel. It takes a long time to get out there -- an hour and a half from the camp -- so that's a challenge. So nothing has really improved over the years nor will it be for the next fire."

Yet crews are learning from the past and are using some of the old containment lines from previous wildfires like North Coast Road. Cal Fire says the game plan involves patience.

"Why is the fire being allowed to continue to grow instead of cutting lines straight across these ridges has to do with access and looking at the fuel and terrain through those areas," public information officer Chad Carroll said. "They're looking at areas they can be most successful at defending against the fire spreading and is least likely to jump their lines."

If the fire reaches those old containment lines, it could potentially reach 170,000 acres in size. However the vegetation isn't as dense as before because of the Basin Complex Fire.

"That fire was eight years ago and oddly, there's some benefit to the fact that that area was burned," Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter said. "There's not much fuel load in there now, so it's not burning as intently. It's not burning as fast as it had been because it doesn't have the fuel that it did when it was over in Palo Colorado."

At one point there were some 5,000 personnel battling the Soberanes Fire. As on Wednesday, it was a little more than 1,600. While the National Guard was relieved of its duties, other fire crews are on standby in case the fire picks up steam again.

"It's hard back-breaking work and I have to hand it to them, the men and women out there doing it," Karstens said. "And no, we have very few if any hydrants so you're relying on an engine with 500 gallons of water and four or five guys to handle thousands of acres of fire."


The Soberanes and Chimney Fires are the latest, but the Central Coast is no stranger to wildfires. Over the years, the area has been charred by other fires like the Marble Cone and Basin Complex fires.

Tonight, KION's Mariana Hicks talks with a longtime firefighter with the Big Sur Fire Brigade to see how previous fires compare with the ones currently burning in Monterey County.

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