Tuesday, Sept. 6 marks Day 46 of the Soberanes wildfire burning east and south of Big Sur on the California coast in the Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest. Active fire behavior continues in the south and southeast portions of the fire within the steep, rugged and inaccessible terrain of the Ventana Wilderness Area (see maps below). The fire currently stands at 60% containment.

Aerial photo courtesy of USFS
The fire, first spotted on July 22, was determined to have been caused by an illegal, unattended campfire on the Soberanes Canyon trail in the Garrapata State Park, just up the mountain from one of our Big Sur sunset shooting locations at Soberanes Point.

Media coverage of the fire was widespread in the early days when the fire threatened the community of Big Sur, including all of the lodging and restaurants right along Highway 1. At the same time, all state parks —from Point Lobos in the north all the way to Julia Pfeiffer Burns (and McWay Waterfall) in the south and the Point Sur Lighthouse Station—were closed to all public access. At times, Highway 1 was completely closed to all vehicles to allow firefighters to keep the encroaching flames east of Highway 1 and the Big Sur community.

In a defiant stand by firefighters (click to enlarge aerial photo at right) which included backfires, retardant lines, bulldozer lines and structure protection, the fire burned right down to Highway 1, directly opposite our Big Sur workshop base of Fernwood Resort. Thankfully, no structures in the Big Sur community were lost to the fire, although over 50 homes southeast of Carmel Highlands were lost in addition to the death of a bulldozer operator.


The fire has moved past the Big Sur community, as seen in the progression map below left (click to enlarge, with key locations from the Big Sur workshop marked), it has now taken hold in the Ventana Wilderness area of the Los Padres National Forest in steep and rugged terrain that is nearly inaccessible by hand crews. A steady air attack and dozer lines are keeping the fire along the ridge above Highway 1 and the coastline, but the fire continues to eat up the landscape at a rate of nearly 500-1000 acres a day.

Fire Progression Map
From the Sept. 6 incident command report, “Firefighters continue working to contain the 100,979-acre wildfire burning south of the Carmel Valley and southeast of Big Sur in Monterey County, California. Containment is now 60%. 1,155 personnel are assigned to this fire including: 15 Hand Crews; 62 Engines; 15 Helicopters; 3 Dozers; 5 Water Tenders and 2 Masticators. The fire is burning actively in several locations during the burn period on Monday with wind and terrain alignments encouraging spread through shrub and heavier understory fuels.”

Fire command intends to contain the fire by the end of September by effectively “building a box” of containment using retardant from air attacks and large bulldozer lines cut into the ridges several miles ahead of the fire’s front. Weather permitting, backfires at these containment lines will remove all fuel from the fire when it reaches this “boundary box” which effectively snuffs out the fire.

However, the fire has been quite stubborn while the weather has not cooperated recently, with fingers of the fire jumping containment lines and spurring additional evacuation notices. The weather forecast, relative to the fire’s growth, calls for “high pressure … building over the fire, initiating a warming and drying trend. Temperatures were up 4-8 degrees from Sunday’s readings, and relative humidity recovered somewhat into the 20s-30s percent range. Winds were lighter compared to recent days, and while generally from the north to northeast at ridge tops, they were mainly terrain-driven upslope/upvalley. Northeast winds will increase … which will cause quickly falling humidity on the ridges. Further warming and drying will occur through midweek.”


The fire will undoubtedly be fully extinguished when the Big Sur workshop rolls around next April. While incident command predicts containment of the fire by the end of the month, that simply means that a full containment line will exist surrounding the entire fire. The fire will continue to burn fuel as it approaches the containment lines.

As the fire crews work to build the full containment lines, containment has held at 60% for several days as the fire’s growth matches that of the pace of containment line building. As seen in the map at right (click to enlarge), the fire continues to burn unchecked along the perimeter, marked in red lines. The black lines define the fire’s past perimeter where no active flames are currently present. A sizable number of acres in the interior area of the fire, called interior islands, still have yet to burn. At the far edges of the map, gray lines mark the containment lines being constructed at this time. The southernmost containment line is not visible in the detail map at right.

As is the case with most fires of this size, this wildfire will not be fully extinguished until winter rains arrive. Between the containment of the fire and before the winter rains arrive, extensive rehabilitation efforts will take place by forest service ecologists and land managers as they work to prevent erosion and mudslides when the rains arrive. Bulldozer containment lines in areas where the fire no longer is burning will be restored to a natural vegetation state.

This wildfire will not impact the Big Sur workshop in any way, however if the presence of the workshop participants in any areas of the planned shooting locations would impact regeneration after the fire, the itinerary will be altered. In some cases, fire burn areas remain closed for 12-18 months to allow for full regrowth of the area. However, at this time, no locations used during our Big Sur workshop course have been impacted or burned by the fire.

At the same time, many communities that have been impacted by the fire, especially the Big Sur community in the past, see a slow return of tourists to the area following a wildfire. In support of the Big Sur community—from the restaurants to the hotels to the retail stores—we will place a special emphasis on utilizing the services of the local community during our 3-day workshop course next April. Details for lodging and dining are listed on the workshop course description page.