Basin-Indians Wildfire in California's Central Coast Region

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A watershed-related issue examined by the ENVS 560/L Watershed Systems class at CSUMB.


In the summer of 2008, the Indians and Basin Complex fires started separately and then merged into one fire. The Indians fire, started by a campfire, burned 81,378 acres of the south eastern Santa Lucia mountains of Central California between June 8th and July 10th. The Basin Complex Fire, started by lightning, burned 162,818 acres of then northern Santa Lucia mountains between June 21st and July 28th,[1]. After a wildfire there is major concern about the possibility of flooding, debris flows and other large scale erosion in the years following the fires[2]. These events potentially endanger the Big Sur and Carmel Valleys, Salinas farm land, Steelhead habitat, Highway 1 and numerous federal and state recreation areas. There has been work aimed at understanding the effects of fire on soils, debris flows and erosion. There is little understanding of the effects of post-fire erosion and debris flows on river habitat, and specifically steelhead habitat.


Map basin 7 14 large.jpg

The Basin Complex-Indians Fire burned approximately 240,000 acres in the northern Santa Lucia Mountains. The fire burned parts of the Upper Carmel River, Arroyo Seco, San Antonia, Rat Creek, Big Sur and Little Sur watersheds. Other areas burned included parts of Fort Hunter Liggett. Much of the land burned is within the National Forest System lands on the Monterey District of Los Padres National Forest[1].

Resource/s at Stake

There is a broad range of resources at risk after the fires. They include the Big Sur and Carmel Valley communities, Salinas Valley farm land, Highway 1, numerous state parks and camp grounds, private residents and essential steelhead habitat.

Of concern in the Carmel Valley is the possibility that the fire may lead to a sizable influx of sediment behind the Los Padres dam. This is the only effective storage facility for flood control and dry season conservation releases on the Carmel River[3].

Steelhead are of particular concern due to their threatened status. The fire is expected to result in an increased load of fine sediments and debris in the years immediately following. This will likely reduce spawning habitat in the short term, but periodic influxes of large woody debris are considered beneficial in the long run because they help maintain structural habitat diversity in streams. The likely net impact on the struggling local steelhead populations is unknown. [4]


Laws, Policies, & Regulations

There are two pieces of legislation that dominate national policy regarding wildfire management. The National Forest Plan was a federal policy responding to the growing concern of dangerous levels of fuels in national forests. The main focuses of the plan are firefighting, rehabilitation, hazardous fuel removal, community assistance and accountability. The original plan released $108 million for fuels removal in 2000; this number increased to $401 million by 2005.

To identify where funds were most necessary, a Ten Year Comprehensive Strategy directed the collaborations of local, tribal, state, and federal land mangers along with scientific and regulatory agencies. The four goals of the plan are improved information sharing, monitoring of accomplishments and forest conditions to improve transparency, a long-term commitment to maintaining the essential resources for implementation, a landscape-level vision for restoration of fire adapted ecosystems, and an emphasis on the importance of using fire as a management tool (Ten Year Comprehensive Strategy 2006).

Assessment of the burned area fell under the jurisdiction of the US Forest Service and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire). The policies of both agencies are to provide rapid assessments of the burned areas and suggest best management practices to avoid further damage from erosion and debris flows. CalFire prepared a


The fire removes organic material and creates hydrophobic soils, which decreases the infiltration rate of rainfall and, in turn, increases the rates of erosion and flow[5]. The principle forms of erosion in this post-fire system are in-channel floods, hyperconcentrated floods, debris torrents, mudsliding and debris flows[6].


  • There has been a lot of work done by the US Geological Survey[7] to understand post-fire debris flows.
  • There has been some work on the long term effects of fire on watershed processes[8].
  • There is a fair amount of knowledge on the life history and habitat requirements of Steelhead[9].


  • The California Department of Fish and Game has developed a well respected method for in stream fish habitat assessment[3].
  • High resolution LIDAR and or aerial photography can help to detect erosion and debris flows.

Future Research

Future work should seek to understand the impacts of rain on the burned area. The greatest hazards to the communities of Big Sur is flooding and debris flows. The in stream habitats of threatened steelhead will also be effected by erosion and debris flows. There is little understanding of the effects of post-fire erosion on steelhead habitat.


  1. 1.0 1.1
  2. Summary of Debris Flow Risk Model
  3. [1]
  4. Basin-Indians Fire BAER Report
  5. Need source
  6. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named seat
  7. Need source
  8. Need source
  9. [2]



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