River in Ruin: The Story of the Carmel River

By Ray A. March | Go to book overview

10 THE FINAL INSULT
Fire in the Forest

On September 8, 1999, lightning struck California’s central coast and the inland Santa Lucia Mountains of Los Padres National Forest that form the watershed for the Carmel River. In shearing white, jagged electrical charges, the lightning pierced anything in its path, including the earth’s achingly dry, thin crust of duff. Hot tributaries darted out from white-heat sources in the sky and painted their way through the blue darkness before angling faintly off at the horizon or heading straight downward, parallel to the mother bolt. The lightning blew the sky wide open and illuminated everything for an eternal instant, and everyone within its glow counted one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three.

Sample borings of trees on 5,860-foot Junipero Serra Peak near the southeastern boundary of the Ventana Wilderness show that for more than a hundred years, from 1790 to 1901, the trees burned six or seven times, and on the average, at about twenty years apart. However, from 1906 to 1999, there were an estimated 839 fires in the northern portion of Los Padres National Forest—an increase in fire frequency directly related to the increase in the neighboring population density. Most of these fires were caused by human carelessness and were usually easily contained, but the area quickly developed a reputation as one of the most fire-prone forests in the entire national forest system. Ninety-one fires in that same time span were started by lightning. In fact, fires burning the most acreage in 1977, 1985, and

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