Big Sur threatened by winter rains

November 11, 2008 7:04:04 PM PST
The California Central Coast is facing an enormous fire threat. Not from flames burning now -- but several months ago. About 240,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest near Big Sur were burned in two big fires this summer.

Beneath the peaceful beauty of Big Sur is the nervous knock of winter.

Janet Lesniak knows welcome or not, the rains will come.

"Obviously we have to prepare for the worst. We've been doing everything we can to mitigate what could potentially be pretty disastrous," said Lesniak.

The recipe for disaster lies in the fire scarred slopes. In June and July, the Basin Complex Fire and Indians Fire scorched 240,000 acres. When the rains begin, there's nothing left to keep the earth from moving.

Dave Reynolds is the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service's Bay Area Forecast Office.

"A half inch an hour to three-quarters inch an hour of can produce a massive debris flow in the area, said Reynolds.

The U.S. Geological Survey says debris flows in Big Sur could be destructive and even potentially deadly.

A community of 1,500 once threatened by fire is again on edge.

"I would like to see something more done upslope, but I'm not sure exactly what could be done that would be effective," said Big Sure Volunteer Fire Brigade Chief Frank Pinney.

The Federal Government says therein lies the problem.

About 83 percent of the burn area is on national forest service land, but the terrain is so steep that seeding and hydro-mulching is deemed useless.

The Forest Service says the only effective solution is a retaining wall around the enormous burn area and that is simply impossible to achieve. Nearly $119 million was spent fighting the fires. The fed has set aside $1 million to deal with the aftermath.

"So it's not a question of do we want to spend money on rehab work. It's just that we didn't find, we're funding what we saw were reasonable projects to take on," said National Forest District Manager John Bradford.

So the community is moving forward on its own with the help of state grants and loans.

There's concrete k-rail near the Big Sur River Inn, propane tanks are being moved away from potential flood zones and there's extensive work near Big Sur's Henry Miller Memorial Library.

Fire came within feet of the building and a significant debris flow would literally bury the popular site. No one is taking any chances.

"There's a lot of work. We are evacuating all of our archives and original art," said Keely Richter from the Henry Miller Memorial Library.

Famed tourist attractions will be protected this winter, but there's also the question of whether any one will be able to visit them.

One of the biggest challenges this winter, and it may be an impossible task will be keeping Highway 1 open. It is the only artery into and out of Big Sur and a lifeline to the outside world.

Some community members call aggressive Caltrans efforts heroic. The agency is working overtime putting in storm drains and culverts, and putting up netting and wire fencing.

In the event the highway is closed at various points and sections of the community are forced to shelter in place, there are plans to get resources to those in need.

Philip Yenovkian is from Monterey County's Office of Emergency Services.

"We're talking about everything from food to fuel, law enforcement, fire protection, everything that takes to sustain that community while their isolated from the rest of the world," said Yenovkian.

The coordinated planning does give some people hope that even in the event of a disaster, the tools are in place to respond quickly.

"I can tell you thousands of hours have already gone into the planning process at a lot of different levels and hopefully it's going to serve us well," said Big Sur resident and Nepenthe General Manager Kirk Gafill.

The people of Big Sur breathe in their surroundings like a gift -- a treasure to be valued and force to be respected.

"I get up every morning and pray for half an inch of very gentle rain every couple of days and hopefully we'll get through it without too much devastation," said Lesniak.

On average Big Sur soaks up 43 inches of rain each year. This winter has the potential to be anything but ordinary.


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