Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System
Updated September 8, 2020
Wildfires are burning at an unprecedented six reserves in the UC Natural Reserve System across northern and central California, and threaten a seventh. Blazes sparked by both lightning and arson have consumed nine buildings and one vehicle, as well as an untold number of acres of grassland, forest, chaparral and other natural habitats.
Beginning the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 18, a thunderstorm hit California with an astonishing 12,000 lightning strikes. The strikes kindled more than 580 fires in an area stretching from the Sacramento Valley through the Bay Area and along the Central Coast. The fires, many of which have merged into so-called fire complexes, have burned nearly a million acres. Drought conditions following a low rain year have made fields and forests exceptionally vulnerable to ignition.
“Wildfires are one of the natural processes that define California’s ecosystems, but enduring so many large, catastrophic fires at the same time is unprecedented for the NRS. Our reserve managers and stewards have been absolutely heroic in their efforts to save life and property. We’re so grateful for their fire management expertise and dedication, which have minimized property and kept everyone safe,” says Peggy Fiedler, executive director of the UC Natural Reserve System.
From north to south, the reserves most affected by the flames are McLaughlin Natural Reserve, located at the intersection of Napa, Lake, and Yolo counties; Quail Ridge and Stebbins Cold Canyon reserves near Lake Berryessa; Blue Oak Ranch Reserve on Mount Hamilton; Hastings Natural History Reservation in Carmel Valley; and Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve in Big Sur. A seventh reserve, Point Reyes Field Station, is located within two miles of a fire burning in Point Reyes National Seashore.
A storm bringing more dry lightning is expected to arrive between Sunday and Tuesday, potentially sparking more fires. Reserve staff in the region and overstretched firefighting crews remain on the alert.
Quail Ridge Reserve
The facilities at Quail Ridge Reserve were hardest hit. Flames from the Quail Fire completely consumed reserve director Shane Waddell’s residence, leaving only the foundation and a metal play structure behind. Waddell’s family evacuated to Davis after they lost power Tuesday around 5:30 p.m. Waddell himself stayed behind to monitor the fire for the next few hours.
“Once the neighboring peninsula’s ridgeline was breached and the fire started down towards Quail, I knew it would be necessary to completely evacuate,” Waddell says. “I decided to leave around 9:30 p.m. I was going up to the field station to grab a couple last things, but when I got to the main gate flames were coming up the ridgeline onto the reserve.”
Even so, Waddell remained long enough to tell neighbors on the Quail Ridge peninsula it was time to depart for their own safety.
“I believe this first wave of fire took my house, but spared the rest of the reserve. However, the fire shifted over the next two days and consumed most of the peninsula,” he says.
The fire also incinerated eight tent cabins, used to house visiting classes, as well as a reserve truck. Other reserve buildings, including the main field station, a researcher house, and studio accommodations, remained largely unharmed. No firefighters were on hand to defend reserve buildings when the fire struck.
“The losses were terrible this time, especially for Shane and his family. We’re relieved and thankful that our evacuation and communication plans kept everyone safe,” says Jeffrey Clary, associate director of the UC Davis Natural Reserves.
Stebbins Cold Canyon
The Quail Fire also burned both slopes of Stebbins Cold Canyon, located less than five miles to the northeast. Four hikers were rescued by California Highway Patrol helicopter before the onset of the flames the morning of Aug. 19. In addition to supporting research, the reserve is open to the public and has become a popular hiking site. The reserve last burned in 2015 in the Wragg Fire. Staff had recently installed an entry kiosk and made improvements to many trails. Though the damage to Stebbins has yet to be assessed, safety concerns mean the reserve will likely be closed to the public for many months.
“The beginnings of the Stebbins fire didn’t seem as intense or fast-moving as last time around in 2015, so we can hope that there are more pockets of less severe burn,” says Sarah Oktay, director of Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve.
The Quail Fire has since merged with other fires in the region to form the LNU Lightning Complex Fire.
McLaughlin Natural Reserve
At a third reserve administered by UC Davis, McLaughlin Natural Reserve, reserve directors Cathy Koehler and Paul Aigner are pinned down by the LNU Lightning Complex burning along Morgan Valley Road. The complex has burned 314,000 acres thus far, making it second only to the 2018 Mendocino Fire Complex as the largest fire in state history.
Luckily, reserve buildings are surrounded by large swaths of tarmac and gravel. The reserve has also opened its doors to shelter nearby residents.
McLaughlin, too, has suffered multiple serious fires in recent years. This marks the second time the reserve has suffered fires that burned several thousand acres in five years. The reserve consists of nearly 7,000 acres of grassland, oak woodland and chaparral.
“Paul Aigner worked with Barrick Mine staff (the site was a gold mine prior to joining the NRS) and first responders to create fire breaks to guide fires away from sensitive areas,” Clary says.
Small fires continue to simmer on reserve lands but Koehler and Aigner are dousing them as they pop up. These little blazes are unlikely to pose serious future danger. “Although significant portions of the natural lands there burned, major facilities and research projects were unscathed,” Clary says. “We lost one small bridge on one of the internal roads.”
Blue Oak Ranch Reserve
Lightning caught the chaparral and oaks atop Mount Hamilton to start the SCU Lightning Fire Complex on Tuesday evening. Blue Oak Ranch Reserve steward Zac Tuthill and his family evacuated before the advancing flames that same night. Tuthill returned shortly afterward to cut fire lines around the reserve’s buildings, which are all clustered in one area a few miles down a dirt track from Mount Hamilton Road.
“That made CalFire very happy,” says Zac Harlow, the reserve’s director. Out of the area attending his brother’s marriage celebration, Harlow drove 15 hours back to the Bay Area to keep tabs on the fire.
Firefighters used the reserve as their staging center on the mountain. Blue Oak’s water tanks, which have a capacity of 50,000 gallons, provided crews with plenty of supplies to protect the buildings. CalFire placed at least four bulldozers and ten fire engines in the reserve’s headquarters area, conducted back burns, and laid fire retardant lines to halt the conflagration’s advance.
“This is a strategic property for containing the spread to more populated areas so they are really working to contain it,” Harlow says.
Crews cut fire lines on the hills and used the reserve access road as a fire break. Their hard work, plus Tuthill’s timely interventions, protected all of the reserve’s primary buildings. Either constructed or remodeled in 2015, these included the reserve’s large Cedar Barn, which holds meeting spaces, bathrooms, kitchen, offices, and a lab; a workshop with utilities and reserve vehicles; two visitor cabins; eight indoor/outdoor screen cabins; and two staff residences.
“We feel incredibly fortunate that CalFire put so many resources into stopping the fire where they did. Had it been unchecked, it would have certainly burned through the facilities,” Harlow says.
Even so, the reserve did not emerge completely unscathed. Flames scorched an estimated 1,800 acres out of the reserve’s 3,280 acres. Among these areas was the Arbor Creek drainage. Intensively instrumented with hydrology equipment by UC Santa Cruz Professor Margaret Zimmer and the NRS’s California Heartbeat Initiative, the experiment’s many ground-based sensors and cables burned. The fire also weakened or killed many of the reserve’s signature blue oaks.
There are no longer any active fires burning on the reserve, and all reserve facilities are safe. However, the SCU Fire Complex has scorched more than 363,000 acres, making it the second largest fire in California history.
Hastings Natural History Reservation
Fire has burned much of Hastings Natural History Reservation, located along Carmel Valley Road midway between the coast and the Central Valley. One of the University of California’s first field stations, the reserve encompasses extensive stands of native grasses, oak woodlands, and chaparral east of Carmel Valley Road. After nearly 83 years as a reserve, Hastings now finds itself at a terrible place: the potential intersection of two major wildfires.
The Carmel Fire has incinerated 5,500 acres one ridgeline to the northwest of the reserve. From the opposite side of Carmel Valley, the nearly ten times larger River Fire, is forging toward the reserve from the east and northeast. If the two meet, it will be at Hastings.
On Wednesday, when it became clear that the River Fire was headed for the heart of the reserve, director Jen Hunter evacuated both her family and the approximately 10 users in residence.
Flames continued to advance from the east into the valleys sheltering Hastings’ collection of 26 buildings. Several structures, including the circa-1860s Scott Barn, are historic and date back to the nineteenth century.
The size and scope of fires burning around the state, including Carmel Valley Village, left CalFire was initially unable to respond to less populous areas like Hastings. In the meantime, reserve director Jen Hunter and the local community rallied to save the reserve.
Hastings’ eastern neighbor, Boekenoogen Ranches, spent days on bulldozers cutting fire lines across their property toward Hastings. They were planning to punch through their shared boundary with the reserve to protect Hastings. The manager of Oak Ridge Ranch, the reserve’s western neighbor, created additional fire breaks on their property.
On Thursday night, Hunter solicited volunteers via social media to help her and her husband defend the reserve. The next morning, she, her husband, and two brave volunteers drove to the reserve Friday morning. They arrived to find flames coursing down a hill straight toward the reserve’s headquarters.
At about this same time, the manager of Oak Ridge Ranch, Hastings’ western neighbor, saw fire tearing toward the reserve’s Lower Barn. He drove his quad ATV through the gate, tied two wooden pallets to the back of his vehicle, and dragged them in front of the advancing flames to try to create an impromptu fire break.
Moments later, to everyone’s relief, air support planes roared in began dropping pink fire retardant on the structures. The planes arrived with mere moments to spare before fire reached the buildings.
“Much credit for our success goes to longtime reserve steward Jamie del Valle, who is the Battalion Chief for the local Cachagua Fire District. While Jaime was assigned to the Carmel Fire, burning in Cachagua, not the River Fire that threatened Hastings, he has been keeping a careful eye out and ear to the radio, and likely had a role in insuring that the reserve received the critical resources it need at just the right time,” Hunter says. “Hastings owes the survival of many of our buildings to the carefully planned fire breaks Jaime has been maintaining during his 16 years at Hastings.”
Thanks to the fire retardant drops, Hunter, her husband, and the volunteers could turn their attention to extinguishing a grass fire moving toward the Hastings office. Two hand crews with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation arrived shortly thereafter put out that blaze. All continued clearing flammable vegetation from around the buildings to enlarge the buffer space.
“CalFire is an almost a constant presence on the reserve now,” Hunter says. The agency is working to further protect homes and outbuildings on lands adjacent to the reserve.
Fire crews have since cut more fire breaks around Hastings buildings and across reserve lands, while dousing remaining hot spots. Hunter and her husband have been assisting by keeping an eye out for spot fires and other flare-ups.
Steward del Valle is now working the River Fire some distance from the reserve. Hunter and her husband are now gearing up to protect the director’s residence, located at the western edge of the reserve. They are deeply concerned about wind changes and dry lightning from the storm forecast to arrive over the next few days.
Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve
Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve in Big Sur experienced its own close call from fire. An arsonist likely set the fire Tuesday evening a few miles north of the reserve. After slowing for a short time, the Dolan Fire exploded Wednesday night. Flames raced through the reserve’s main canyon and out to its southern boundary.
“The whole reserve was pretty much on fire, there was fire everywhere,” Dayton said Big Creek Director Mark Readdie told him.
The canyon contains many of the reserve’s facilities, including a newly built classroom, researcher housing, lab, and campground, as well as a private inholding with several cabins.
Years of fire preparedness were instrumental in saving the main structures from the flames. “There was really no time to prepare in the moment, as the conditions were too dangerous to move far from the main structures,” says Gage Dayton, director of the UC Santa Cruz Natural Reserves. Staff had already cleared brush from around the buildings, installed fire sprinklers, and filled reserve water tanks for just this type of emergency.
Big Creek staff stayed near the structures to battle the blaze. They helped crews navigate the reserve’s steep terrain and twisting roads, provided access to water supplies, and turned on building sprinklers. Together with some 60 firefighters from several different crews, they saved the reserve’s primary buildings.
Unfortunately, some neighboring cabins, reserve campgrounds, and remote equipment are likely lost or damaged.
Reserve staff plan to spend the upcoming months repairing reserve roads and generally cleaning up after the fires. The extent of the damage means the reserve will need to close for some time. Pockets of fire continue to smolder across the reserve, and are expected to continue burning for many weeks. Staff will be watching for these small burns and will douse them whenever possible.
Año Nuevo Island Reserve
The view of the fires from the NRS’s Año Nuevo Island Reserve was surreal. Director Patrick Robinson was on the island August 18 to spot tagged and marked California sea lions. He’d known the lightning storm a couple of nights earlier had sparked a few blazes here and there; he’d even paused to take a photo of first responders putting out a small roadside fire during his morning drive to Año Nuevo State Park.
So when he looked up from his observation post on the island, he found the billowing smoke worth filming, but not alarming enough to cut his trip short.
In hindsight, Robinson says, “it was neat in a horrible way to have a direct observation of the first phase of the fire before it exploded.”
By the time he returned to the mainland at the end of the day, the situation had begun to careen out of control.
“We were actually seeing four helicopters going back and forth dropping water as we came back in from the island. They were pulling water from a nearby farm irrigation pond,” Robinson says.
Over the next few days, the CZU Fire Complex would roar down off the mountain and endanger Año Nuevo State Park. It consumed several historic buildings at the Cascade Ranch portion of the park, and even jumped the highway into Cascade Field west of Highway One.
Miraculously, all of the park’s visitor facilities, as well as the beaches where the majority of reserve research takes place, were spared.
If a fire had to happen at Año Nuevo, Robinson says, the timing couldn’t have been better for the reserve. Most of the northern elephant seals that are the focus of reserve research programs will be at sea until late autumn. “This is the calmest fall in terms of research activity that we’ve seen in a better part of a decade.”
Robinson himself did not fare as well. He and his wife Roxanne Beltran, a UC Santa Cruz professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, received notice to evacuate their Santa Cruz Mountains home the very evening he returned from the island. Over the next few days, wildfire would burn it to the ground.
Despite these setbacks, the pair are doing their best to remain positive. They say they are grateful to have been able to pack their most prized possessions, and escape safely in plenty of time along with their cat and dog.
Point Reyes Field Station
Point Reyes Field Station in Marin has not yet burned, but remains threatened by the Woodward Fire burning in Point Reyes National Seashore. Situated about six miles south of the town of Olema, field station is a historic ranch house owned by the National Park Service.
The Woodward Fire ignited on Aug. 19 less than five miles from the reserve. Reserve director Allison Kidder coordinated with National Park Service staff to enable the park’s fire chief and crews to stay at the reserve during their firefighting efforts.
“As part of our partnership with the National Park Service we are happy to support the fire fighting efforts,” says Allison Kidder, director of Point Reyes Field Station.
The blaze was just 5 percent contained as of the evening of Aug. 22. The reserve remains under an evacuation warning.
“We’re keeping a close watch on the fire and grateful to the courage and persistence of the fire fighting crews. At this point we have a plan in place to rapidly retrieve key equipment if we receive an evacuation order,” Kidder says.
The Woodward Fire has continued to grow but has stayed to the west of the ridge that rises between the reserve and the ocean. The field station building is believed to be out of danger.