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Pfieffer Bridge in Big Sur is impassible

Crumbling Bridge Splits Big Sur Community

The Central Coast of California has been a hot spot for activity this year. The normally quaint and quiet Big Sur area is one of the wettest and most rugged in all of Coastal California. In the past year, the area has seen the region’s largest ever fire (Soberanes), and its highest winter rainfall accumulation in over a decade. Although the latest winter storms in February have pulled the area out of a six year long drought, it also has also–quite literally–split the Monterey County community in two.

Heavy Rains Damage Monterey County Roads and Bridges

Since the beginning of the year, the well-traveled section of Highway 1 through Big Sur has seen over 15 inches of rain, and its steep hillsides have endured numerous land and mud slides. Consequently, a 50-mile stretch of the highway has been closed to facilitate a major cleanup effort for the better part of a month. What’s worse is that the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge (in the Soberanes Fire area) has actually buckled due to the support columns moving from heavy runoff during early February’s rain events. Highway 1 has had a hard closure there, making the highway impassible since February 12th.

Pfieffer Bridge in Big Sur is impassible

The Pfeiffer Bridge in Big Sur has been impassible since February 12, 2017

As a result, tourists have had to deal with very long detours and local residents have been left stranded. The bridge’s support columns have shifted a significant distance from their operational location and have made the bridge unable to support the minimum mandated weight. Cal trans crews are working on plans to demolish the bridge into 3 manageable sections for removal and then begin the yearlong process of building a new structure. Crews have spent the weeks since the bridge damage discovery moving demolition equipment into place using helicopters.

On March 13th, the demolition process began with a 6,000 pound wrecking ball. After a few hours of work the crews realized that in the current configuration, the wrecking ball could not get enough downward force to break up the bridge. Parts were ordered to change the configuration and demolition personnel were set to try again on March 15th.

Impact to Big Sur Residents Could Last Months

While the road crews focus all their efforts on getting more sections of the Highway open, around 400 residents have been unable to drive from their homes, relying only on their supplies at home. Due to the lengthy closure, affected homeowners have run low on food and water. Some are resorting to travelling by foot to get hundreds of pounds of food while others are utilizing rations that have been flown into locations by helicopter.

A plan is underway to actually build a new hiking trail (1/2 mile foot path) that can be used by homeowners to get around the Pfeiffer Bridge closure. The trail is being constructed by California Conservation Crews and numerous volunteers, and will take some time to complete. The use of the trail will be limited to residents and can only be used during specific hours.

For emergency responders, the closure situation causes a different problem in terms accessing residences during future emergency situations. The new bridge will take months to construct and the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade is responsible for the safety of residents on both sides of the closure. As a solution, the brigade has actually split into two response areas but, at this point, cannot access all of their response territory. Currently, there is a contingency plan in place to use a Medivac helicopter to get people out that may need medical attention. The Big Sur Medical Center, which is also affected by the closure, has continued to receive medical resupply, including daily prescriptions that area residents need. The sense is that local authorities seem confident in the contingency plan in place. They have said numerous times that they will be able to provide emergency services to all remote areas.

Twelve Weeks Later: Soberanes Fire 100% Contained

Soberanes Fire Recap

The Soberanes Fire in northern California has finally wound down, with officials marking the blaze at 100% contained as of Wednesday evening (10/12).  The fire ignited from an illegal campfire on July 22nd–a full twelve weeks ago–and in the first week, destroyed 57 residences and 11 outbuildings.  Luckily, no other losses have been reported since then.


How Soberanes Compares to Other Fires

The progress of the fire has been mostly stalled for weeks, with fire crews focusing on building containment lines in the troublesome and rugged terrain of the Ventana Wilderness (LPF).  Subsequently, the fire perimeter and acreage has not budged much since late September.  Collectively, the fire has topped a record $250m in suppression costs, dwarfing the previous high from 2002 of $165m (Biscuit Fire). The Soberanes Fire finished its run at 132,127 acres which is good for 17th place in California’s documented history and 6th largest ever in the Los Padres National Forest. The sheer size of the wildfire is apparent in comparison to both the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City.

Soberanes Fire size comparison with SF and NYC

Soberanes Fire size comparison with NYC and SF


Soberanes Fire Facts (10/14)

  • Started: July 22nd, 2016
  • Contained: Oct 12th, 2016 (83 days)
  • Location:  Big Sur, CA
  • Size: 132,127 acres
    • 94,933 acres CA-LPF – 72%
    • 37,194 acres CALFIRE BEU – 28%
  • Containment: 100%
  • Fire Behavior: Interior smoldering with sporadic smoke possible.
  • Structures Threatened: 0
  • Structures Destroyed: 68 (57 primary, 11 outbuildings)
  • Cost to Date: $249.9+ million
  • Incident Page: Inciweb
  • News Article: KSBW News


IMT Assignments

Since the blaze began, seven different incident management teams have been assigned to the storied fire (see list below). California’s IMT2 (Mills) team is expected to see out the remaining 21% of suppression repair and continue to BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) operations.  The full list of IMTs assigned to Soberanes:

  • CAL FIRE Team 4 IC (Derum) taking command on 07/23/2016 at 1200
  • CAL FIRE IMT (Derum) in unified command with CA IMT1 (von Tillow) on 08/05/2016
  • CA IMT1 (von Tillow) in unified command with CAL FIRE IMT (King BEU) 08/19/2016 at 0600
  • CA IMT1 (von Tillow) transferred command to AK IMT1 (Kurth) @ 0700 8/24/2016, No more unified command
  • CA IMT1 (Opliger) will transition on 09/13/2016 at 0600
  • CA IMT2 (Arroyo) assumed command of incident 09/29/2016 at 0800
  • CA IMT2 (Mills) will assume command 10/13/2016 at 0600

Sources:

Inciweb

NIFC

KSBW News

Soberanes Fire over 100,000 acres, costs crest $200 million

Soberanes Fire Summary

The Soberanes Fire is eight weeks old today, starting way back on July 22nd. We have been closely monitoring the blaze as it has burned most of the summer. This month, the fire has well surpassed 100,000 acres and is still only 57% contained. Early on, the fire destroyed 57 residences and 11 outbuildings in Palo Colorado Canyon. Currently, there are more than 1,437 firefighters on scene fighting the blaze which is primarily in the rugged Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest (LPF). 410 structures remain threatened with evacuation warnings in effect. Full containment is not expected until September 30th. A few highlights on the fire are seen in the eight-week timeline below.

Picture2

Soberanes Fire has been burning for eight weeks and counting


Soberanes Fire Outlook

The fire has been predominantly growing south and east in the Ventana Wilderness of the LPF for the last couple weeks. Due to good work by crews and holding containment lines the fire has stayed east of Big Sur and west of Carmel Valley Road. Yet firing operations on the east side of the fire remain the main objective of late, as fire crews try to further increase containment by connecting indirect line near Chew’s Ridge in Divisions J, K, and L to the completed line north of the Los Padres Dam.  Consequently, a successful effort in the coming days will add both acreage and containment in those divisions. Furthermore, air attack activity will pick up as their resources will assist in keeping fuels adjacent to the indirect fire line from igniting.   Meanwhile, on the southern, coastal side of the fire, crews continue to work hard securing and improving the established containment lines. They have been successful holding the fire east of an established dozer line on the ridge above Big Sur.

Next week, the Soberanes fire will reach its ninth week (and on the 23rd, enter its third month). The fire has burned 65% on federal lands and 35% on state lands. Suppression costs for the entirety have soared to over $200 million with an average of $3.58 million spent each day. If the fire were fully contained today, the feds would be on the hook for over $130 million and CALFIRE for the other $70+ million. At that rate, if firefighters were to reach full containment on September 30th, the suppression cost would eclipse $250 million (not including costs from damages incurred). If they can’t connect containment lines in the near future, likely the fire will continue to burn until fall weather, rains, or cooler temperatures stall its activity.

Soberanes Fire near Big Sur, CA is now over 100,000 acres and still growing

Soberanes Fire Progression: Continues burning near Big Sur, CA and is now over 100,000 acres and growing


Soberanes Fire Facts (9/16)

  • Started: July 22nd, 2016
  • Location: Ventana Wilderness, Big Sur, CA
  • Size: 108,031 acres (70,285 acres CA-LPF; 37,194 acres CALFIRE)
  • Containment: 57%
  • Fire Behavior: Slow fire spread through timber, chaparral, and tall grass in steep, rugged terrain.
  • Structures Threatened: 410 (reported)
  • Structures Destroyed: 68 (57 primary, 11 outbuildings)
  • Evacuations: Warnings remain in place
  • Cost to Date: $200.4 million
  • Incident Page: Inciweb
  • News Article: Big Sur News

Sources:

  • Big Sur Kate
  • Inciweb
  • NIFC

Soberanes Fire Update: now over 50% contained

Soberanes Fire Summary

The Soberanes Fire started as the result of an illegal campfire that was left unattended on July 22nd within the Garrapata State Park to the south of Monterey. The fire is now over 70,000 acres and is 55% contained. Currently, there are more than 5,300 firefighters on scene fighting the blaze. Damage assessments remain unchanged with 57 residences and 11 outbuildings destroyed, along with 3 structures and 2 outbuildings damaged, mostly in Palo Colorado, 15 miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Full containment is not expected until August 31st.

Soberanes Fire Perimeter (8/12)

Soberanes Fire Location (8/12), between Big Sur and Carmel Highlands south of Monterey


Soberanes Fire Outlook

The fire had minimal growth in lower elevations again Thursday night as the marine layer kept the fire in check. Yesterday’s firing operation on the north part of Coast Ridge continued to be hot overnight with new MODIS heat detections picking up where an island of unburned fuel burned off near Dani Ridge. Morning reports had the high elevation areas near Ventana Double Cone as having actively burned yesterday and overnight as well. The majority of fire activity has been limited to the area of Uncle Sam Mountain and Coast Ridge, exhibiting mostly backing, creeping, and smoldering along with a few sustained uphill runs.

As mentioned, firing operations took place yesterday (8/11) along Coast Ridge and are being planned–dependent on weather–for the coming days to strengthen containment lines in the Big Sur area. This could close Highway 1 periodically over the next few days. Specifically, fire managers are trying to prevent the fire from crossing the Big Sur River Gorge where it could make a hard uphill run, and aiming to keep the fire out of the inhabited coastal canyons above Nepenthe, Pfeiffer Falls, and Big Sur Lodge.

Air quality in the Big Sur area will be poor again today at the lower elevations. The warming and drying trend that began yesterday will continue today as high pressure builds. Areas removed from the marine layer will see their hottest conditions since last week. Overnight humidity recoveries will be poor over the upper slopes and ridges. The warming trend will bring slightly more intense fire conditions above the marine layer, with areas below it continuing the low intensity and minimal spread.

Soberanes Fire Facts (8/12)

  • Started: July 22nd, 2016
  • Location: Big Sur, CA
  • Size: 70,615 acres
  • Containment: 55%
  • Fire Behavior: Slow fire spread through timber, chaparral, and tall grass in steep, rugged terrain.
  • Structures Threatened: 410 (reported)
  • Structures Destroyed: 68 (57 primary, 11 outbuildings)
  • Evacuations: Are in place
  • Incident Page: CALFIRE Information
  • News Article: KSBW News