I joined Ventana Wilderness Alliance staff and volunteers in marking the one year anniversary of the ignition of the Soberanes Fire by cleaning up trash and dismantling fire rings along the Arroyo Seco River.
The Arroyo Seco River, with mile after mile of spectacular swimming holes, is a popular place to beat the heat – especially on days, like yesterday, when temperatures in the canyon climb into the triple digits.
While we found, and hauled out, a lot of junk, this area is less trashed than popular locations on the coast. This might seem surprising, considering the large crowds and heavy alcohol consumption, but it’s probably because Salinas Valley locals outnumber tourists.
Former Forest Service Ranger, now Ventana Wilderness Alliance Volunteer Wilderness Ranger, Steve Benoit, dismantles a fire ring. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would want a campfire in the middle of the day when it’s more than 100 degrees out, but we found people in the act of laying a fire in this ring and, in another location, an active campfire. For some people, apparently, no outdoor adventure is complete without a fire.
Steve, and his fellow VWA Volunteer Rangers are amazingly patient and effective when it comes to explaining the reasons why fires aren’t allowed to clueless visitors, but there are only so many people they can reach. Given the scope of the problem, they are, literally, voices crying in the wilderness.
At least this fire, had they managed to get it started at all, would have been unlikely get away. The entire area, including the wood they were preparing to light, was splattered with fire retardant. This was because the beach was located directly below the hillside that burned only a couple of weeks ago. When the wildfire broke out, probably as a result of a discarded cigarette, the Forest Service called in air tankers to slow its advance.
Forest Service rules specify that retardant should not be dropped within 300 feet of streams, due to its toxicity to fish, frogs and other aquatic life, but it all too often ends up in the water anyway. In this case, a stripe of retardant was laid down directly across this large pool.
Retardant is also rich in nitrogen, which, since it acts as a fertilizer, is often cited as a benefit. Unfortunately, fertilizing wild areas can give highly flammable non-native species an advantage over less flammable natives, resulting in heightened fire danger in years to come. When nitrogen gets into water, as in this case, it can also promote algae blooms that kill fish by consuming oxygen.
Even small fires, far from structures, can end up having serious consequences.
While it’s understandable that certain trailheads, including the Pine Ridge Trailhead in Big Sur and the Bottcher’s Gap Trailhead remain closed, it is harder to understand why, a year after the fire, most of the northern Ventana Wilderness remains officially closed – a closure which now far exceeds in length the closures that followed other major fires.
While I was standing by this sign, a couple on their way into the Wilderness for a backpacking adventure stopped to ask me what I knew about trail conditions. When I asked them why they weren’t worried about getting into trouble for entering a closed area, they told me they were sure it was OK, because they’d explained their plans to the “Ranger” who took their money at the Arroyo Seco gate (this would actually be an employee of the concessionaire that runs the Arroyo Seco Campground and Day Use Area) and he hadn’t said anything about the Forest being closed. All he’d said was that they should be sure to stay hydrated.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the only people being discouraged by the Forest Closure Order are the more informed, competent and responsible backcountry travelers – exactly the people whose presence might do the most good.
When hiking in the Wilderness is outlawed, only outlaws will hike in the Wilderness?
The crew takes a break.