Cachagua Valley Visit, Post Basin Complex

I had to see the country.

Years ago I fought fire on the “front” or ocean side of the Basin Complex burn area.

Twice we brought crews down from Santa Cruz County late in the afternoon and scraped lines around fires burning on million dollar view sites.

Nothing like a beautiful Pacific Ocean sunset as a backdrop while you tie off a polite little burn. Easy money and fun.

A different world exists on the back side of Big Sur.

On my many visits to the Carmel Valley I never ventured south the community of Carmel Valley.

Yesterday I set out to find the Cachagua Valley, the place where residents were held hostage in their own homes as the Basin Complex Fire worked its way down the backside of the Ventana Wilderness.

Miles south of Carmel Valley I turned off the highway onto the Cachagua Valley Road. The Tularcitos CalFire station sign is about a half mile up the road. No station could be seen and a closed metal gate kept me from getting a look at the grounds. I’ve spent time at a number of Cal Fire /CDF stations and like to see how the stations stack up. This one is hidden from view.

So up the windy, narrow road up to a summit where I could finally pull over and take a look at charred peaks in the distance.

When God built the Ventana Wilderness he put all his leftover steep slopes and canyons behind Big Sur.

He also covered the steep canyons with vegetation so thick you can’t walk through it. Dare to try you are greeted by poison oak, dead and dying varieties of brush, live and dead oak trees choking varieties of conifers doing their best to make a life surrounded by their less polite neighbors.

My first thought was how did they ever put this fire out.

I descended into Cachagua Valley. Four or more miles of downhill at 10 to 20 miles per hour on the 1 1/2 lane road and I’m on the valley floor. It’s not a valley really, it’s a road between mountains. It looks different from overhead views on Google Earth.

Sitting on the porch of the Cachagua General Store was a gray bearded man reading. I decided not to interrupt his peace with a bunch of questions. I took a good look around until it was time to crawl back out of the valley.

I had to see it and I did.

During the Basin Complex fire I followed the saga of the residents of this valley. To say they were treated poorly would be kind to local law enforcement. I’ll never understand why the residents were treated as they were by the Monterey County Sheriff but I did gain a little insight as I drove around the area.

Some places are primed to burn. Because of geography, topography and meteorology some places are fire disasters in waiting. This little valley is such a place.
It’s dry, and sits at the base of steep faced mountains. There is nowhere to defend an approaching fire from. Even the main road is covered by tree limbs. If you attempted to fire out from the Cachagua Valley road the fire would quickly be on both sides of the highway.

Undoubtedly Basin commanders running the east side had detailed discussions about the foreseeable threat to the little valley and concluded the place had to be evacuated. Tactics chosen to persuade the residents were heavy handed and wrong. There is no dispute about this.

My “after the fact” opinion is, if the fire would have moved into the Cachagua Valley people would have died.

Residents who prepare their properties by clearing vegetation, wrapping and have gel on hand can make a case to stay and defend in most cases. The majority of Cachagua homesteads I saw from the road yesterday did not fall into this category. Many of the properties I saw were dangerous fire traps. Firefighters would compromise their own safety to rescue residents in non defensible dwellings and that is the real problem.

Readers of this blog might sense a bit of hypocrisy, after all I have blasted the Basin Command for not helping the residents of Tassajara farther up canyon.

Two different scenarios. The monks at Tassajara had a defensible space and sprinklers installed. The compound had survived a direct fire assault years earlier. Weeks before Basin firefighters drew up structure protection plans for Tassajara. The plans were not put in action and five monks were left to do their best.

In addition Tassajara is one compound, not separate properties spread about. Wildfire burning through a narrow valley with residents sheltering in place is a nightmare scenario.

Once I got back on the Carmel Valley Road I noticed all the signs thanking firefighters tacked and nailed on telephone poles every couple of miles. I liked one in particular posted on a pole in the town of Carmel Valley.

I saw no such signs in Cachagua. I think the sentiment is misplaced. An outstanding firefighting effort waged miles away saved their community.

8 Comments

  • Mike D. says:

    I like your blog. Your fire reporting is timely and very insightful. Thank you for your excellent efforts.We share an awful condition, which I call the Cassandra Curse. We see these disasters looming in our crystal balls, but cannot seem to warn the communities with significant effect. (Cassandra was the Trojan princess to whom Apollo gave the gift of prophesy, but also the curse of lacking the ability to persuade anyone.)I wish I knew how to inspire the residents of Monterey, Mariposa, and many other Western counties, to grab hold of their local landscape problems with local vigor. Waiting for Uncle Sam (or Uncle Arnold in the CA case) to bail them out of tight jams is suicidal. Most modern fires are predictable and preventable, but only aware, organized, and dedicated local communities can fix their local problems. The State and the feds are not going to do it.

  • Mike says:

    I value your comments Mike. I liked this passage in your open letter to Congress in 2007.”……Typically the forests that have been destroyed by catastrophic fire were strongly multi-cohort with older cohort trees of 150 to 600 years of age. Also typically, the vegetation that arises after the fires is sclerophyllous brush with a few, even-aged conifer germinants. It is clear that the new forests will be nothing like the old forests. In fact, it is probable that the new forests will burn again after 15 to 50 years of new fuel development. We know from reburned areas such as the Silver Burn (1987) within the Biscuit Burn (2002) that the new “forest” is loaded with highly flammable brush. The few conifer germinants grow slowly and are killed in the subsequent fire. After reburns no conifer seed sources are left, and the new “forest” becomes a permanent, catastrophic fire-type shrubfield”

  • Mike D. says:

    I don’t exempt Cachauga or CV residents from responsibility. It is their watershed/landscape. The fact that nothing has been done to abate the hazards or tend the land is partially their fault, too.When the next fire hits in the upper Carmel Valley, if driven by Santa Ana (east) winds it will sweep all the way to the beach in a disaster of monumental proportions. No firefighting response will be able to stop it.Luck is right, but one of these days luck is going to run out. Whole landscape restoration is needed now.Historically the entire Coast Range was grassy savanna, not pyrophytic brush, when the Spaniards arrived. It had been maintained in that condition by indigenous anthropogenic fire for millennia. That is what stewardship looks like there; regular, seasonal, deliberate burning to induce and maintain a savanna. It requires roads and investment in prescribed burning. Without that, fuels build up to catastrophic levels. It’s not about logging and it’s not about wilderness; it’s about tending the land.The entire community needs to get behind restorative stewardship, with history as the guide. Fire experts need to be involved, but it is much more than merely a fire/fuels problem.

  • Mike says:

    Let’s put it this way Mike D. The residents of Carmel Valley, fully 10 or more miles from Cachagua were grateful.Cachagua residents have every right to be upset with the Sheriff’s office but the firefighters on the Basin did their best to put the fire out.The country back there is some of the most difficult terrain immaginable to fight fire in.As for the Forest Service and fuels management, forget it, their budgets serve firefighting. It’s too big a business now and thinning is a pipe dream.Look at Big Bear and the bark beetle problem they ignore.Big Sur and the dead oaks.Trinity County and the undergrowth and dead fuels in the Trinity Alps.Finally, yeah, after I saw the Valley first hand and the country above where the fire burned I concluded Cachauga was lucky.

  • Mike D. says:

    Back in June you pointed out that the intention of the USFS was to burn 200,000+ acres, and so they did, in what became the one of the largest and most expensive fires in state history.Now you say that homeowners fully 25 miles away from the ignition point should be grateful their homes were not incinerated like 350 square miles of public land (and endangered species habitat), and should be thankful for the bravery and skill of firefighters.The feds had 30 years to address the fuel/fire problems on the Los Padres following the Marble Cone Fire. What did they do? Nothing, flat out nothing.Gratitude is a fine thing. I have no problem with gratitude. But responsible land stewardship and defensible space extend to the furthest reaches of the watershed, not a mere 100 feet around homes. I feel no gratitude for a federal land management agency that has abrogated stewardship in favor of recurring megafires. Firefighters should have figured out by now that their safety is also impacted by irresponsible public land un-management.

  • pendoodles says:

    I loved living out in Cachagua 25 some odd years ago. It is an amazing place. I am so glad my friends that still live out there were untouched by that fire. The 5 Monk’s needs to be really commended for their stregnth and reserve for sticking it out at the Zen Center/Tassahara.

  • Mike says:

    Hi Kate– Yes, Cachagua was eye opening. I’ll have to see it after a couple of good rainy seasons. I was not prepared for how dense the undergrowth is.Your new fire may be this one burning near Parkfield. 400 acres and they stepped on it quick. BTW, what can’t you see from your “lookout”?:-)Mike

  • bigsurkate says:

    Yes, it is one thing to hear about it, and another to actually see it, isn’t it?New fire back on Fort Hunter-Leggett, just south of Nacimiento Rd, directly behind me on the other side of the Santa Lucias. Looked pretty small and defensible last night, but I smell the smoke this am, and will be setting out to check it out, momentarily. If you find out anything, let me know.