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.

Satellite image of the Basin Complex Fire, Jun29, 2008. Photo from Earth Observatory [4]


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 the 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. and portions 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 was 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. [1]



Assessment of the burned area fell under the jurisdiction of the US Forest Service and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire). CalFire was the lead agency for the assessment. 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.


Fires consume vegetation and affect soil porosity and structure. Soil hydraulic conductivity can also be affected depending on the severity of the burn. Severely burned soils have a high degree of hydrophobicity which decreases the infiltration rate of rainfall and, in turn, increases erosion rates and overland flow. The eroded material has the potential to increase sedimentation in streams affecting water quality and water yield[4]. Slope failure is escalated after fires [5] due to slope denudation and the destruction of slope-stabilizing root structures. Debris flows and torrents, hyperconcentrated flow, increased overland flow, and mudslides are post-fire risks resulting from the newly exposed slopes.


  • There has been a lot of work done by the US Geological Survey[5]to understand post-fire debris flows.
  • There has been some work on the long term effects of fire on watershed processes[6].
  • There is a fair amount of knowledge on the life history and habitat requirements of Steelhead.


  • The California Department of Fish and Game has developed a well respected method for in stream fish habitat assessment[5].
  • High resolution LIDAR and 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 direct effects of post-fire erosion on steelhead habitat.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Basin-Indians Fire SEAT Report
  2. Summary of Debris Flow Risk Model
  3. [1]
  4. [2]
  5. 5.0 5.1 [3]



This page may contain students' work completed as part of assigned coursework. It may not be accurate. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion or policy of CSUMB, its staff, or students.