Winter rains take toll on wildfire-burned Big Creek

Big Creek deluge
More than 9 inches of rain over three days triggered slides and major damage to Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve.

By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System

Burned by fire this past summer, the NRS’s Landel’s-Hill Big Creek Reserve is now suffering the ravages of landslides triggered by torrential rains dumped by an atmospheric river. The Dolan Fire, set by an arsonist in late August 2020, denuded vegetation across the rugged reserve, which stretches across 1,750-acres of Big Sur from the Pacific coast to the ridgeline of the Santa Lucia Mountains. As the living root networks of plants are critical for holding soil in place, the fire left the reserve’s steep slopes vulnerable to landslides.

Then an atmospheric river dumped 9.4 inches of rain between Jan. 26 and 29, 2021. The deluge waterlogged reserve soils and triggered landslides. Big trees crashed into the canyons and clogged the reserve’s namesake creek with a logjam of splintered trees. Full to bursting, the creek swept away willows and other riparian vegetation, leaving behind eroded banks and bare soils. Mud and boulders littered formerly well-groomed reserve roads, and a falling tree flattened an outbuilding adjacent to the reserve’s Gate House. Tons of soil washed into the ocean, staining the waves coffee brown.

Beyond Big Creek’s gates, the storm crumbled a portion of State Route 1 north of the reserve into the sea. The highway is partially closed for repairs.

The photos below, provided by Big Creek director Mark Readdie, provide a glimpse of the gargantuan cleanup task facing reserve staff.

Big Creek deluge
The reach of Big Creek close to the mouth of the canyon.
Big Creek deluge
Fallen trees and other debris litter the creek banks.
Big Creek deluge
A falling tree smashed the outdoor shower building to splinters.
Big Creek deluge
An enormous logjam, formed uprooted trees, blocks a section of Big Creek.
Big Creek deluge
The creek reached a high water mark along the few trees left standing.
Big Creek deluge
A broken stump is all that remains of a tree that once shaded the creek.
Big Creek deluge
Fallen trees have made it impossible for vehicles to pass through the main road into the canyon.
Big Creek deluge
Cascading water cut deep gouges into the reserve’s steep slopes.
Big Creek deluge
Heavy storm erosion exposed the roots of trees and shrubs.
Big Creek deluge
Burned skeletons are all that remain of this former stand of oak and bay forest.
Big Creek deluge
A slide of rock and mud clogged this stretch of reserve road.
Big Creek deluge
The massive amount of sediments that washed down the creek stained the ocean brown.
Big Creek deluge
Soil washed down from the mountains covered Highway 1 after the storm.

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