Research Paper: Fire Dynamics

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¶ … Basin Complex Fire in California

Introduction and Fire Facts

California is a big, beautiful state, featuring mountains, deserts, beaches, and vast forested areas. Much of California is rural and wilderness. But California it is known for some serious problems due to natural hazards, such as frequent earthquake activity; it is also known for wildfires and for flooding in the season after the wildfires. The fires that scorch California in the summer and fall leave the earth barren and subject to flooding and mudslides when the winter rains arrive. This paper reviews and analyzes the great fire of the summer of 2008, the Basin Complex fire, and the dynamics of that fire vis-a-vis the natural world that it had an affect on. Also, the paper will report on the impact the fire had on the community of Big Sur and the Buddhist retreat community called Tassajara deep in the wilderness east of Big Sur and the Pacific Ocean.

On the morning of June 21, 2008, a rare summer electrical thunderstorm blew into California, and the resulting lightning strikes caused an estimated 1,700 fires in the Golden State's forests (Woo, 2008). Most were small fires and were quickly extinguished. But one of those fires grew into a massive, destructive blaze. The Monterey County fire -- burning in the Ventana Wilderness area near Big Sur -- came to be known as the Basin Complex fire. The fire started at exactly 12:56 P.M. On a Saturday and burned 162,818 acres from its start on June 21 to its full containment on July 27, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) report. The Basin Complex fire was the 8th largest fire in California Wildland fire history -- at least in the history since records were kept. The cost to suppress the fire is estimated to be $77.2 million.

The Basin Complex blaze destroyed 58 structures albeit more than 12,000 homes and buildings were threatened prior being saved by weary firefighters. The Basin Complex fire joined up at one point with another Big Sur area fire, the Indian fire. The two of those fires together burned 240,000 acres of federal, state and private lands (USGS). About 83% of those 240,000 acres fell within the jurisdiction of the Los Padres National Forest (LPNL). Hundreds of firefighters from California, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona and Utah arrived on the scene to battle the blaze. The exact number of firefighters was unavailable for this report.

What aided the fire's growth and intensity was the fact that many years of growth of underbrush -- called chaparral -- served as the perfect fuel to keep the fire growing and moving. Other vegetation types that provided a plentiful supply of fuel included: coast redwood trees; mixed evergreen forest (coulter pines, spruce, cypress trees); oak woodlands; oak savanna; montage conifer forest; annual grasslands and coastal sage scrub (USGS).

The basin complex fire burned over 292 miles of "class 1" stream channels; it burned over 156.48 miles of "class 2" stream channels and 37.46 miles of "class 3" stream channels (USGS). The severity of the burned watershed was great in some areas and not so severe in others. To wit, 23% of the 240,169 total acres (that is combining the Indians fire and the Basin Complex fire) was burned to a "high degree"; about 37% of the 240,169 acres was burned to a "moderate" degree. Sixteen percent of the total burned acreage was scorched to a "low" degree and 24% of the burned acreage was "unburned" -- somehow the wall of flames either skipped over 24% of the acreage or moved to the right or the left (USGS).

The potential for post-fire erosion -- erosion that could lead to hazardous conditions in the winter rainy season -- was listed as "high" on 86,510 acres of the burned area. Some 57,359 acres of the burn was categorized as "moderate" in terms of future erosion problems; and 96,300 acres of the total 240,169 acres of burn were listed as "low" on the erosion scale as far as potential hazards from mudslides, etc. (USGS). The estimate given by the United States Geological Survey as to how many years it would take for the burned vegetation to recover was 5 years. The USGS estimate as to how much erosion could occur on the steep, denuded hillsides and mountain… [END OF PREVIEW]

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