Firefighters battling the stubborn Marbe Cone fire in this rugged, inaccessible coastal region have saved a watershed and lost a wilderness.
Marble Cone contained today after the blaze destroyed more than 175,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest and become the second biggest fire in Califonia's history. Federal and state fire crews totalling 5,700 men and women finally encirled the blaze with 156 miles of firelines formed by backing or carved out hillsides with bulldozers and hand crews.
The firefighting strategy saves 90 per cent of the valuable Carmel River watershed and all of the picturesque homes which dot the Carmel Valley.
The watershed is the area surrounding a river or stream and drained by it. Vegetation in the watershed retains moisture and helps prevent flooding and erosion.
Lost in the firefighting process was most of the Ventana wilderness area southeast of here.
Ed Waldapfel, public information afficer for the Los Padres Naitonal Forest, said that an estimated 80,000 to 85,000 acres of the 98,000-acre wilderness area had been destroyed.
"It will take 200 years for the area to come back the way it was before the fire," Waldapfel said.
The loss of the Ventana wilderness was the result of a deliberate decision by Myron Lee, the fire boss on Marble Cone, to sacrifice wilderness to watershed.
A week after two lighting-caused fires joined to form the Marble Cone blaze on Aug. 1, Lee deployed his firelines in a wide encirclement, concentrating on the northern side where the fire was racing for the watershed area. The strategy saved the watershed but gave the fire free reign in a large section of the mostly inaccessible wilderness area to the south where firelines were thinly manned and far from the actual fire.
Instead of trying to penetrate Ventana to put out the fire, these southern crews built a series of backfires that consumed almost as much of the wilderness area as the fire they were trying to stop.
"The watershed simply had the highest priority," said Waldapfel.
Destruction of the watershed would have meant almost certain landslide from the denuded hillsides when the rains come this winter. It also would have meant that dry reservoirs which are supposed to fill water would have been clogged with silt.
Even though the fire is officially contained, flames within the wide perimeter of firelines are expected to burn for several weeks or until rain comes. A tropical storm which drenched Southern California with record rainfall Wednesday drifted to the northeast and missed all but the southern tip of the Marble Cone fire.
While the flames still burn, there were criticisms of the U.S. Forest Service for failing to anticipate the fire.
The current issue of New West magazine quoted Big Sur residents as being dissatisfied with Forest Service preventive measures.
"They feel that the U.S. Forest Service was too late getting bulldozers in the area, that it has no plans for confronting such a massive burn, and that protective measures, such as setting up firebreaks, should have been undertaken ahead of time," the article said.
The problem with such arguments is that the federal wilderness law of 1964 prohibits fire suppression measures and the building of firebreaks within wilderness areas expect in emergencies. Conservationist groups in California traditionally have opposed even slight infringements on the sanctity of wilderness areas.
Ten days after the fire started. Los Padres forest supervisor Al West responded to Lee's request and allowed bulldozers into Ventana. Even then, the bulldozers were accompanied by forestry resource officers who determined a careful line of access, much of it along an old four-wheel-drive trail.
Marble Cone is a vivid reminder that the natural state of a wilderness is not always benign. The genesis of the fire was the heavy snow of 1974, which forced oak limbs to the ground and compacted brush to a height of four feet or more. When the fire came, the oak limbs, still with leaves, stuck up among the brush like candle wicks.
"Nature created this fire situation," says Waldapfel. "Maybe this is nature's way of clearing it up."
This losers in the fire were th ground-burrowing squirrels and other rodents whose range is limited to a small area. In much of the fire area, squirrels, rabbits and rats were simply wiped out. Larger animals such as deer, bear and mountain lion were able to escape the blaze and rach other parts of the 1.9 million-acre Los Padres Forest.
Before containment, the fire surpassed the 1970 Laguna fire in San Diego County as the second-largest forest and brush fire in California's history. The largest, the Matiliha fire, occurred in the Los Padres Forest near Ofai in 1932 and burned 219,000 acres.
Forestry officials said that only a limited reseeding program is likely in a few critical areas of the forest. For the most part, the wilderness area will be left alone and allowed to returnslowly to its natural state.