Up in Smoke The Raging History of Wildfires in Big Sur

By Kate Woods Novoa

Campfires have been sparking spectacular wildfires in Big Sur since settlers first appeared in this Land to the South.

Back in 1904, an observer named E.A. Sterling reported that an untended campfire had started a massive fire in the Chews Ridge area the previous year. The fire burned for three months. It started “from an unextinguished campfire in Township 18 south … and burned a strip of about a township wide through to the coast, becoming wider towards its western end.” His observations were recorded in an unpublished USFS typescript.

This was not the first recorded wildfire in Big Sur or the Monterey Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest. There is a long history of wildfires in the mountains and forests of the Santa Lucia Range.

“According to a number of sources, in 1894 most of what is now the Monterey Ranger district was consumed by a fire that burned unchecked for weeks,” wrote David Rogers, who has written extensively about this history of wildlands in Monterey County. 

Then, again in 1896, Rogers found that residents around Carmel “were said to have been lamenting the destruction caused by fires” due to the carelessness of campers. “In September of 1896, Eleanor Chew mentioned that ‘a forest fire is raging on the headwaters of the Carmel,’ and in August of 1897 she noted that ‘the weather for the past week has been the hottest in the memory of the ‘oldest inhabitant,’ the heat being greatly increased by a large fire between here and the coast, changing the cool sea breezes to heat waves.’” 

* Related Story: Living with Wildfires

At the time of these early fires in Big Sur, the USFS firefighting mechanism we have come to know and rely on either did not exist or had just barely come into existence. These fires were fought primarily by the residents and often by a single forest employee. 

It was in 1910 during the notorious Big Burn, or the Big Blowup, in Northern Idaho that fire tactics changed. Instead of allowing wildfires to burn themselves out from letting them burn, the federal government employed aggressive firefighting techniques for the first time. That fire killed 78 firefighters. Aug. 20, 1910, was the “day the mountains roared.” 

The Big Blowup of 1910 set our current firefighting tactics into motion. Extinguishing wildfires within the first 24 hours after they start became the goal.

The wild country in Big Sur is part of the Los Padres National Forest, an expanse of nearly 2 million acres that stretched from Ventura to an area just south of the Carmel Highlands. Big fires have swept through Los Padres lands for the past century. Andrew Madsen, a public information officer for the Los Padres National Forest,  called the national forest “America’s No. 1 fire forest. He cited the historic large fires dating back to the Matilija Fire of 1932, which burned 220,000 acres in Ventura County, along with the Zaca Fire, 75 years later, that burned 240,000 acres in Santa Barbara County. 

Closer to home, the Marble Cone fire of 1977 burned 177,866 of land in the more remote regions of Big Sur, and it remains on the list of the 20 largest California wildfires recorded.

Five fires in 20 years

On Sept. 8, 1999, dry lightning started a number of fires, the largest of which was the Kirk-Hare fire. This fire later became the Kirk Complex and burned over 80,000 acres over the course of three months.

On June 21, 2008, the Basin Complex Fire (originally the Gallery Fire) was sparked by lightning  behind the Coast Gallery. This fire burned over 162,000 acres in more than a month. It caused the closure of Highway 1 and the evacuation of much of Big Sur. 

Two months later, the Chalk Fire broke out and burned for about a month in my backyard. This one was human-caused. 

Five years later, on Dec. 15, 2013, the Pfeiffer Fire started. It burned fewer than 1,000 acres, but it destroyed dozens of homes and uprooted many lives. 

In 2016, the Soberanes Fire started as a result of an illegal campfire in the back country above Soberanes and eventually burned more than 132,000 acres. That is the one that exhausted this coast. It lasted from July 22 to Oct. 12, destroying 57 homes and taking one life. 

When a campfire ban goes into effect, the relief is almost palpable for those who live in or near the Los Padres National Forest. It is seasonal news that comes every year — campfires are banned outside developed campgrounds. The determination is made when vegetation moisture levels drop below a predetermined level. An even louder sigh of relief is heard again when the rains begin in earnest, usually in November. 

This year, the campfire ban was declared on June 28. We all know that not everyone will comply with the forestwide order. There will be those who think, for whatever reason, that the rules do not apply to them. But at $5,000, the fines for violations are hefty. 

Living with wildfire is something with which most everyone in California is familiar, some to a greater degree than others. The Wildland-Urban Interface, better known as the WUI, is a zone of transition between wildland (unoccupied land) and human development. Communities in the WUI are at risk of catastrophic wildfire. According to the Forest Service, as of 2010, almost one-third of the houses in California are in the Wildland-Urban Interface

In the Los Padres National Forest, the entire boundary is WUI and much of the interior is seen as a threat to it. Madsen says he does not have figures on WUI acres adjacent to LP, “but when taking into account Big Sur, Montecito, Santa Barbara and Ojai, the WUI we have is among the most expensive in terms of values at risk.”

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Kate Woods Novoa

About Kate Woods Novoa

Since 1985, Kate Woods Novoa has lived in Big Sur, working as a public defender for Monterey County. She started the bigsurkate blog (https://bigsurkate.blog) during the 2008 Basin Complex fire and kept at it when she didn’t intend to.