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Old Baldy, Canada | photo by Cameron Schaus
Chapter Chair's Column
Eyewitness account of the Basin Complex Fire

August 2008

I remember standing in the boutique at the Phoenix Shop in Big Sur on Saturday, June 21, when that big, dark cloud came over the coast. I was looking at the panorama of the coastline, thinking that nothing good could come of those horrible lightning bolts.

I saw one of the bolts strike the hillside, just beyond the first ridgeline, and it took only seconds for the first puff of smoke to materialize. I never dreamed that weeks later, that same little flicker would still be burning. The lightning bolt struck in the steepest terrain, in the most inaccessible spot on the coast.

The Nepenthe Restaurant webcam recorded much of the activity the first week, as the fire spread up and over the coast ridge and both north and south along the ridge top. Then it slowly approached Highway 1. It refused to be contained. On July 2 it jumped dozer lines on the Coast Ridge Road, quickly spread toward the village of Big Sur, and overtook Mount Manuel to the north.

Early on, Incident Command paid a visit to Big Creek Reserve where I live. The next day, the dozer command asked to be taken up Dolan Ridge, the northern perimeter of the Reserve to see if it was suitable for a containment line. It took all day to walk the line through poison oak and mature Ceanothus. A dozer commander and a Reserve staff member flagged the line with pink tape, almost up to Eagle Rock. The following day, the group went up to Eagle Rock, and flagged an escape route for the dozer operators. If the fire could not be contained at Dolan Ridge, it would burn for weeks more down the coast.

While the fire eventually did burn all the way to the line, it was held after several ferocious battles. The fire crew set several backfires to reinforce the line. Flames leaped 100 feet in the air around Eagle Rock. The fire even tried to sneak into the Reserve at the southeast corner, near Cone Peak, but, again, fire crews held the line.

It will be some time before the impact of the fire can be completely understood. But simple things could be seen early on. The Barn Swallows that nest in the buildings at Whale Point had a hard time finding insects to eat as the air was filled with smoke and ash during the first week. The lack of insects also impacted the Funnel Spiders who count on catching insects in their webs. It was also hard to find any bees during this time. The good news is that the condors were almost all accounted for, and several visited the Reserve looking for food.

A chemical compound in the smoke will activate Ceanothus seeds, so that more of this shrub will grow in the fire area in the future. The fire will affect streams and rivers, whether the coming winter is wet or dry. If the winter produces a lot of rain, there may be mudslides. If it is dry, the rivers will be full of ash and sediment produced by the fire.

—Terry Hallock

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