Fire on the California Coast: Big Sur Up in Flames

  The Soberanes Fire located in the Los Padres National Forest in California began on Jul. 22, 2016 started by an illegal campfire.
The Soberanes Fire located in the Los Padres National Forest in California began on Jul. 22, 2016 started by an illegal campfire. U.S. Department of Agriculture
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Each year, over 3 million people travel to Big Sur, CA to stand before a vast wilderness where the forest meets the sea. The area’s mythical landscape has provided jolts of creativity for artists and literary figures for generations, and it is a sanctuary for hikers, campers, and soul-searchers from around the world. The endless range of redwoods and untouched beaches along this 90 mile stretch of Highway 1 has been revered as pure, rugged beauty, and can make the rest of the California coastline look comparatively uninspired….which is no easy feat.

Today, however, the smell of salt water and tree sap mixes with the unmistakable scent of smoke. The hills behind Pffeiffer State Park smolder and the piles of pine needles that line the highway are covered in ash. The marine layer pushes off a hopelessly blue ocean into a blanket of blackness. Today, Big Sur is on fire.

Firefighter looks over scorched area of Soberanes Fire checking for hot spots.
Firefighter looks over scorched area of Soberanes Fire checking for hot spots. U.S. Department of Agriculture

The Soberanes Fire in Big Sur, CA has, at the time of this writing, burned over 90,000 acres, destroyed 57 homes, and killed one man. The blaze began on July 22nd as the result of an illegal campfire near Soberanes Creek in Garrapata State Park. With containment at only 60%, the state parks are closed, evacuations have been ordered, and a violent inferno is sweeping across the Los Padres National Forest.

Through the combustion of thick chaparral and an illegal spark, the Soberanes Fire has ignited the inevitable collision of nature and mankind. Because for the Big Sur community, iconic vistas and a connection with nature aren’t the only things at risk— tourism is Big Sur’s economy. Most of the state parks, including Andrew Molera and Julia Pfeiffer Burns, are closed to the public while they house over 3,000 firefighters. Officials have stated that the fire isn’t expected to be fully contained until the end of September, and while certain areas will reopen after Labor Day, many popular trails and parks, including Garrapata State Park, will remain closed indefinitely due to damage.

The Soberanes Fire has consumed roughly 90,000 acres.
The Soberanes Fire has consumed roughly 90,000 acres. U.S. Department of Agriculture

Campsites and hotels that are traditionally booked up years in advance have openings, which at this time of year, is unheard of. Nepenthe Restaurant manager, Kirk Gafill, told ABC News in San Francisco, “A week in July is the equivalent of a couple of weeks in January or February.” With tourism down and locals being evacuated, Big Sur businesses are at the mercy of the nature it depends on.

The Soberanes devastation goes beyond the economy for those that have lost their homes. Big Sur has seen larger fires scorch more land in the past, yet the number of homes lost and buildings threatened during the Soberanes Fire makes it one of the most destructive.

The unique terrain of Big Sur is one of the main draws for outdoor aficionados, and right now, is the largest detriment to containing the flames. The area’s thick chaparral floor, steep ridges, and erratic changes in temperature stimulate combustion, while the marine layer locks in smoke above the fire. CAL FIRE Battalion Chief, Robert Fish stated, “It’s extremely remote and rugged terrain… There’s not a real break in the weather. There’s a lot of challenges.”

Nearly 400 California Army National Guard Soldiers from the 578th Brigade Engineer Battalion were called up to support the fire.
Nearly 400 California Army National Guard Soldiers from the 578th Brigade Engineer Battalion were called up to support the fire. U.S. Department of Agriculture

Fires are a necessary and integral part of a forest's evolution and growth, and nature has no issue fanning an illegal campfire into a deadly blaze. With limited access to problem areas and unpredictable weather, robbing the fire of potential fuel by clearing brush is one of the main strategies for firefighters. At the fire's current magnitude, we cannot conquer, only attempt to contain.

With Highway 1 open again, travelers can still gaze upon McWay Falls and cross the historic Bixby Bridge. Despite all our resources and technology, though, we stand helplessly before the smoldering evidence of our own impact on nature. The Soberanes Fire is a reminder that even mankind is sometimes at the mercy of nature's unforgiving flames.

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