Risky Business

A firefighter waits for approaching fire outside of a home on the top of Corona Road in Carmel Highlands. Fire officials estimate $6.8 billion worth of structures were threatened during the Soberanes Fire.

It was in the afternoon of May 31, 1987, when a Pebble Beach resident spotted smoke rising from the canopy in a wooded area near the S.F.B Morse Botanical Reserve in the Del Monte Forest. The resident called Pebble Beach security, who called the Pebble Beach fire station at 3:35pm. By 3:37pm, firefighters were out the door, including the battalion chief.

The annual rainfall was 50 – to 60-percent below average at the time for the 1987 season, and the vegetation was dry. Access to the fire – which was started by an illegal campfire and became known as the Morse Fire – was limited, and it quickly raced up the northwest-facing hill on which it started. By 4:10pm, the battalion chief had requested three additional engines, two hand crews and an air tanker. The closest air tanker was already working a fire in the Los Padres National Forest, so one was requested from Chico. At 4:15pm, the chief called in a bulldozer, and three minutes later, a helicopter with a water-dropping bucket.

The fire continued surging east up the hill – which had a 56-percent grade – and over the next hour, firefighters poured in from around the county. At 5:08pm, the battalion chief called in two more copters.

Around that same time, firefighters began setting up along Los Altos Drive, which was the closest neighborhood to the fire. When firefighters arrived, residents were hosing down their rooftops.

At 6:41pm – about three hours after the fire started – a county mutual aid strike team was called in, and residents had begun evacuating voluntarily. An official evacuation started four minutes later.

Shortly after, between 6:55 and 7pm, a firestorm – an unusually hot fire that draws in its own wind – intensified things just west of the neighborhood and quickly spread into it. For their own safety, firefighters also began to evacuate, and corralled any remaining residents.

When the firestorm abated, several homes and rooftops were aflame, and the sector chief ordered firefighters back in to save what they could. The fire was ultimately brought under control at midnight, and was fully contained at 6pm the following day.

In the end, the Morse Fire burned 160 acres and destroyed 31 structures, and caused about $18 million in damage.

The U.S. Fire Administration conducted an investigation of the Morse Fire, and attributed its rapid spread and destruction to abundant dry fuel – firefighter vernacular for vegetation and material poised to burn and, with respect to the firestorm, winds coming off the ocean and from the east. The Los Altos neighborhood was also filled with wood shingle roofs, many of which were covered in pine needles, factors that were later determined to be key to the fate of the homes that burned.

For local firefighters, the Morse Fire still resonates, because in a similar, “worst-case scenario” set of conditions – where the fuel is plentiful and dry, the winds are just right, and there are fires elsewhere drawing firefighting resources – much of the Monterey Peninsula remains just as vulnerable today.

On a recent afternoon in the Pebble Beach fire station, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mark Mancini stands before a map of the Monterey Peninsula. He traces his forefinger over various spots on the map, and describes the fuel load in places like Pescadero Canyon in Pebble Beach, Aguajito Road in Monterey, and in northwest Carmel Valley, Hatton Canyon, Pacific Meadows and Del Mesa.

Mancini is self-described as mellow, and says, “I don’t think of anything as a major threat to everything.”

But if the conditions are right – in his words “perfect,” similar to that of the Morse Fire – he admits things could get very bad. “There’s a potential for a worst-case scenario in any one of these drainages and canyons,” he says.

Much of that potential resides in the fuel load, especially in south-facing hills blanketed by brush. Local Cal Fire Battalion Chief Dennis King says it is those same types of hills that helped drive the Soberanes Fire in its early push toward populated neighborhoods in Carmel Valley and Cachagua.

“The south-facing hills are made up of brush dependent on burning, and they haven’t had fires in modern history,” he says. “A good portion of the Soberanes Fire had no modern [fire] history to it.”

~ ~ ~

Even though Big Sur and much of the Peninsula are often draped in fog, the persisting drought only figures to worsen fire danger into the future. And even in the fog, it can be a tinderbox.

Cal Fire Captain Chris Hartzell, about 15 years ago, responded to a vegetation fire in a residential area in Pebble Beach. It had been foggy for four days, he says, and the roads were “soaking wet.” He turned on his windshield wipers as he approached, and he and other firefighters, he says, didn’t expect to encounter much.

Instead, coming around a turn, they were met with 40-foot-tall flames.

“Everything is driven by fuels,” he says. “It was a classic example. It’s all about dry, dead fuels.”

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Those fuels don’t have to be plants or trees – they can also be homes. Among the most memorable fires Hartzell has fought in his career was the 2003 Old Fire in the San Bernardino Mountains, which started after an arsonist threw a lit flare into brush. The fire, fanned by Santa Ana winds coming from the east – similar, though stronger, to the winds that fueled the Morse Fire – came during what is known as the “Fire Siege of 2003,” when 14 fires hit Southern California in a month. The sheer quantity of incidents stretched firefighting resources desperately thin.

“The fire was moving so fast we couldn’t keep up with it,” Hartzell says, adding that embers from the fire had jumped into a neighborhood in San Bernardino surrounded by an 8-foot-tall wall. “We pulled up, and we were basically told to start protecting houses. When we went into the neighborhood, we were losing one out of 40 houses. That evening, the wind shifted dramatically and it went to saving one house in 40.”

King, like Hartzell, has seen fires move up to 20 or 30mph, and says many local residents might not fully understand their risks.

“People can’t imagine what a fire’s going to do unless they’ve spent time around fires and watched fire behavior,” he says.

This time of year, he says, when leaves are falling, is peak fire season in Monterey County, and waiting a week to clean out one’s rain gutters is a gamble.

“If a fire breaks out that week, you’re going to have a problem. Even with an engine, you’re not putting that fire out until it burns that fuel,” he says, adding that firefighters now recommend residents reduce brush and fuel 100 feet from their homes, well above the 30-foot state requirement for urban wildland areas.

In the case of the Soberanes Fire, King says, some residents didn’t heed firefighters’ advice about best practices to protect their homes.

“If they’re cleared properly, trees are not the problem people think they are, it’s more the brush,” he says. “Some of the houses that survived – where their neighbors’ burned down – were because [the homeowners] followed that guidance.”

And for some homes he’s seen out in places like Cachagua, where there are 100 feet of brush stretching downhill from a ridgeline property, he recommends a 200 – to 300-foot clearance: “They’re going to have 100-foot-high flames.”

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