By Tim Frahm
The Soberanes Fire on California’s Central Coast offers some lessons for protecting and restoring steelhead habitat before and during wildfires
California’s central coast is world renowned for its rugged, scenic beauty. But relatively few know of the technical steelhead angling found here, in streams such as the Carmel River and San Carpoforo Creek that tumble out of the coastal ranges between Santa Cruz and Point Conception.
Here, as in most parts of California, four years of historic drought have reduced once-perennial streamflows to trickles and have baked soils into hardpan, putting even more stress on steelhead in this region (listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act).
California’s climate is prone to regular droughts, and steelhead have utilized their remarkable life history diversity to adapt to extended dry periods. What they are not well adapted to is the scorched-earth impacts of catastrophic wildfire.
On July 22, 2016, conditions in the Big Sur region were optimal for wildfire: single digit humidity, only a shallow expression of our normal “marine layer” (fog), 3 percent fuel moisture.
So it was not surprising that a single human mistake—an un-attended campfire in a state park where campfires are not allowed—sparked the Soberanes Fire.
In its first day, the Soberanes Fire grew to 6,500 acres and progressed to the north, south and east all at once. Within five days it had grown to 27,000 acres and threatened 2,000 homes.
Now, after 19 days, the fire encompasses 70,000 acres and is 45% contained, but is still moving south and east, toward the headwaters of the Big Sur and Arroyo Seco rivers.
5,500 fire-fighters, over 400 engines, 60 bulldozers, two dozen helicopters and bombers have fought the fire. 60 homes have been lost, and an estimated $6,000,000 per day expended to fight it.
At least eight steelhead bearing watersheds have been affected by this one fire. Five of these are streams identified in the Federal Recovery Plan for the South-Central Coastal Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of steelhead as Core 1 recovery waters: the Arroyo Seco River, Big Sur River, Little Sur River, San Jose Creek and the Carmel River.
It’s well-established that Native Americans used fire as a land management tool, burning brush to increase grasslands, allowing the fires to burn until they ran out of fuel or rainfall finally doused the flames. Steelhead historically persisted with this type of low-intensity fire.
What’s different now is that we can’t allow 2000 homes to burn. The Central Coast isn’t the backcountry of Yellowstone – we can’t just let it burn. So we fight the fire war, but some of the tactics required to prevail—tons of fire retardant and miles of fire roads crossing streams and, once rains come again, delivering huge loads of sediment into creeks—means coping with years of highly degraded habitat that will need to be restored.
Is there a way to reduce the impacts of wildfire on steelhead? The Federal recovery plan for steelhead in this DPS notes that wildfire is a threat source in all of watersheds, but the corresponding Recovery Action is to “Develop and implement an integrated wildland fire and hazardous fuels management plan.”
While managing fuels is important, perhaps more important is to develop a strategy for addressing or even anticipating and deflecting the impacts of fire suppression actions. The Soberanes Fire demonstrated that if you have a GIS layer of important local habitat and wildlife resources, this information can be incorporated into planning and tactics for fighting the fire even during the battle.
For catastrophic fires like the Soberanes, even the most pragmatic planning can be rendered moot by the urgent need for suppression to protect human lives and property. For more controllable fires, however, a fire contingency plan might conserve steelhead, and decades and millions of dollars’ worth of restoration.