Saturday, July 5, 2008
“Adding fire to fire is a risky thing,” Sam Wilbanks, division supervisor for the Basin Complex Fire, told the Weekly as he and branch director Don Forsyth surveyed conditions on Thursday afternoon. We stood east of Highway One near the Big Sur Post Office a few hours before these men gave firefighters the go ahead to create a “firing operation” there, north of Loma Vista to Captain Cooper School. A backfire or firing operation stops a wildfire by removing fuel — low brush, chaparral, and fallen tress — in its path. Controlled burns can destroy the fuel so that the wildfire dies down when it reaches the “firebreak.” This particular firing operation, or backfire, was initiated on a down slope facing the canyon. Its goal was to create a controllable slow-moving fire that would work its downhill to meet with the existing fire in the canyon, a fire that had been working its way down the ridge near Ventana Inn. Backfires do have their risks. One of the Forest Service’s top priorities has been to keep the fire east of Highway One to help protect the structures and commercial district of the Big Sur Valley. Since an upslope fire increases in potency (and becomes more unpredictable) as it grows and surges uphill the command center considered it a reasonable risk to create a firebreak with the intention to meet the existing fire growing in the valley, about 100 yards from the highway. Strike teams from the multi-agency force prepared for this operation for hours, clearing low brush and cutting branches from underneath trees, setting up portable water storage tanks so they could quickly refill their fire engines with water, and running more than 3,000 feet of 1-1/2-inch fire hose along the roadside. The buzz of chain saws and wood chippers filled the air this holiday afternoon. The specialists began to arrive — truckloads of highly trained US Forest firefighters who move from fire to fire to manage this specialized type of operation. They gathered near the post office, some purchasing snacks from the Big Sur Center store and gas station shop. The helicopter support team was also actively engaged, too, including seven copters airborne, one an impressive Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk. One local fire strike team on site was from the Salinas Fire Department, and their assignment placed them just across the street from the Loma Vista gas station and Big Sur Center. “Fighting fire is an art,” commented Scott Myhre, a battalion chief from Salinas. He confirmed that any backfire has its risks but that the branch manager of the Basin fire had the responsibility to make the final call of whether to ignite it. As the Basin Complex Fire grows, fire engines and crews from all over the country continue to arrive. On yesterday’s national holiday, it wasn’t faraway tourists visiting Big Sur but strike teams from Kansas and Nebraska cutting brush and laying hose. A team from Escondido, near San Diego, controlled one hot area north of Cooper School, felling a burning tree next to the highway and keeping an eye on the burn. A truck and crew from Armstrong, South Dakota was clearing brush in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, keeping the creeping ground fire from crossing the creek near the visitor parking lot. After driving their vehicle 25 hours to Big Sur, the crew will join all the firefighters working the Basin fire to work a 14-day shift, 12-16 hours per day. The operations and command team works a 21-day shift. To date, the fire has cost over $17 million to fight, approximately $1 million per day. The US Forest Service rained praise on the Big Sur community for its preparation and cooperation in fighting this fire. Many evacuated residents expressed a desire to receive better communication on the status of the fire and the reopening of Highway One. The fire remained highly active, continuing its movement south and east, and slowly to the north. The fire grew 3,319 acres between 6am and 6pm, Thursday, to a total area of 68,712 acres. Favorable winds and lower humidity were helpful, however, the Forest Service continues to consider the fire extremely volatile. There are currently 1,777 structures still at risk and about 20 miles of firebreak to build. Key firebreaks are still being constructed. Dolan Road is key to contain the fire to the south. On the north front, old Marble Cone fire road, built in 1977, has mostly been clearer. The firebreak will continue to be constructed and cleared from Botchers Gap and to the Los Padres Dam, also in the north. The fire remains east of Highway One throughout the region. While the Goleta fire near Santa Barbara has led to some of the air operations shifting to the south, it was expected that one of the DC-10s recently put into action for air support will pay a visit to the Botchers Gap area on Friday. While the fire has swept through the southern portion of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, the impact has been on the underbrush and not the ancient redwoods. The burning also remains well east of Esalen Institute. On Friday morning, the US Forest Service’s Greg Denitto told the Weekly that the backfire near the Post Office was considered a successful operation.