This past August, I was scheduled to fly into the San Jose Airport but was unsure if I would be able to do so. The Soberanes fire had broken out only ten days prior, and in those first ten days of the blaze, the affected land grew by about 5000 acres per day. It was “zero percent” contained, and the hot days and high winds were working against its suppression.
I made a few calls to the airline, who told me that SJC hadn’t been closed yet, making them unwilling to reschedule my flight if I chose to delay my return to an area a friend had called to tell me was “an asthma-inducing smoke pit.” I took the flight. I witnessed billowing smoke cones from the plane, but I was not really that close to the fire – not that day, nor any other.
It would be three months before firefighters would completely extinguish the Soberanes fire. Two hundred twenty-nine million dollars was spent in the process, making this, according to some sources, the most expensive fire suppression project in US history. In Santa Cruz, we could see smoke from the southern mountains on some days, but the coastal breezes kept particulate matter far away from us. More than anything else, we experienced the fire through daily press updates. “The Soberanes Fire continues to burn,” the local public radio reporter said every morning, “and evacuations are still in effect for portions of the Carmel Valley.” By the time it was all over, the fire had burned about 150 square miles of terrain and destroyed fifty-seven homes.
According to the weather forecast, last Friday was supposed to be sunny. We here in central California haven’t been seeing a whole lot of the bright orb lately, and given the looks of the monthly forecast, it appears that we might not be seeing it until sometime in February. I decided to capitalize on this short weather window and drive down California’s Highway 1 to Big Sur – in part to witness the aftereffects of the fire, but in part to revisit a place I hadn’t seen in a couple of decades.
I remembered this section of coast as being rugged, stunning, and unique; and, of course, my memory served me well on this account. What I didn’t recall was just how uninhabitable this landscape is – or at least, how uninhabitable it should be. It’s not just the steep and rocky terrain that makes this area unfriendly; it’s also the unbelievably fluid quality of the landscape. Nature is on the move here every single day, changing and shifting in ways that aren’t always conducive to human needs and desires.
The fire scars weren’t as obvious as I had thought they would be, primarily because the burned areas are situated a couple miles in from the coast. This was, of course, part of what made the fire so hard to fight; firefighters had to hike a substantial distance to access the places where they could start doing their work. High peaks now have discernible brown and black swaths across their ridgelines, but if you didn’t know to look for the discoloration, you might not notice them.
What is far more obvious is the soil instability that has been set in motion by the fires. Vegetation holds crumbly mountains together. When that vegetation burns, rocks and dirt on steep slopes do what all gravity-obeying objects do – they fall down. Evidence of this is everywhere, but the most obvious testament to the severity of the post-conflagration rockfall and landslide risk is the fact that the Los Padres National Forest has closed a large portion of the fire area for a year. Yes, a year. That’s how long officials believe it will take the area to revegetate, and that’s how concerned they are about the peril moving earth might pose to human travelers.
I drove down to Big Sur between storms, so in addition to damage caused by the fires, I also got to witness smaller-scale – but widespread – damage to the highway from rain-induced mudslides. Route 1 is an incrediblyefeat of human engineering; when I drive it, I constantly wonder if it’s even appropriate to have a road in this kind of terrain. But we do have one, and the amount of upkeep required to maintain it is staggering. I saw no fewer than ten bulldozers on my 100-mile round trip drive. They were mainly working to clear debris from pullouts, but a few were plowing dirt and rocks from the roadway itself. Once I started noticing these herculean efforts to fight the geography’s steady entropic creep, I started to see all the infrastructural improvements in place that allow the road to be navigable – bridges, tunnels, and wire mesh netting on rockfaces, for example. I pictured a small army on retainer keeping this road operational.
The day after my drive, it started to rain here on the central California coast, and it hasn’t stopped raining since. All of the coastal counties are on flash flood watch, and I received an email from the city government advising me to “take the storm seriously” and stock up on food, water, and batteries.
Just out of curiosity, I did a little poking around on weather and highway advisory sites in the Big Sur area today. Not surprisingly, I learned that Highway 1 through Big Sur was closed last night. The river running through the small hamlet has already exceeded its banks, and a redwood logjam is causing further backup onto the roadway. While I was writing this, my radio show was interrupted for an emergency announcement stating that “enhanced erosion and debris flows are very likely” in the Carmel Valley, Carmel Highlands, and Big Sur areas. I imagine that if I were to drive down there tomorrow (something I could not and would not do, at this point), I would be seeing a brand new landscape already, just in the span of two days. Like I said, this is terrain on the move – and quickly.
For me, this begs a question: “do we belong here?” And I’m not sure I know the answer to that. Yes, the road is amazingly scenic, and thousands of people get to appreciate that beauty every day. Those thousands of people bring hundreds of thousands of tourist dollars to the area, supporting a host of families up and down the central coast. But at what cost? Over five thousand firefighters were engaged in battling the Soberanes Fire at various points, and many of them were focused primarily on keeping the fire away from structures. What kinds of structures? Well, you see a lot of them on the drive – multi-million dollar mansions that are occupied for less than a few weeks a year. Your tax dollars – $229 million of them – were spent on this effort. The effort may have only temporarily deterred the burning of thousands of acres of drought-dessicated scrub that most range scientists will tell you eventually has to be cleared by fire for the land to continue through its natural cycle. On top of the fire suppression costs, there’s the daily cost of keeping the road clear, and the yearly expenses of replacing bridges and guardrails and expanding pullouts to accommodate the crowds. Meanwhile, this land wants to change and evolve, day after day after day.
Perhaps it’s easy for me to say this, as an able-bodied person with a lot of backcountry experience, but I’m not sure a road – or at least a paved road – belongs there. There are other ways to access terrain, all of which take more time and skill, and all of which are more committing. But that’s the magic of them. You’ve got to want to see what you set out to explore, you can’t just climb into a climate-controlled vehicle and watch the movie from the windshield.
You can still do that in Big Sur – although, as I look outside my window at my flooding street, I am aware that one big storm could change everything.