Fire at Big Sur burns homes, forces evacuations

(UPDATED at 11:35 a.m. PST, December 19, 2013)

Map of Pfeiffer Fire
Map of Pfeiffer Fire, looking northwest, showing the fire perimeter at 10:34 p.m. PST, December 18, 2013. (Click to enlarge)

An update from the Pfeiffer Fire Incident Management Team (IMT) at about 11 a.m. today revised the size to 917 acres and the containment to 79 percent. The evacuations of the Pfeiffer Ridge Road area remain in effect and the number of destroyed homes is still at 22. More information from the IMT:

Crews made good progress overnight in mopping up and strengthening lines in all areas of the fire. Structure protection continued as well. The expected strong winds which accompanied the cold front moved over the fire at approximately 10:00 pm. The stronger winds created a risk to firefighters from falling trees so crews were pulled off the lines to safety points and the fire was in a monitoring status for the remainder of the shift. Scattered rain occurred over the fire area.

QR code for Pfeiffer Fire maps
QR code for Pfeiffer Fire maps

Maps of the fire can be found at the IMT’s Dropbox account. In an interesting twist, California Interagency Incident Management Team 7 did not place any maps on InciWeb, but instead posted an image of a QR code which when scanned with a barcode app on a smart phone will take you to Dropbox. If you viewed Inciweb with a computer or a smart phone, you would not have access to the maps, since neither the smart phone or a computer can scan an image on its own screen. You would have to view the QR code on one device and scan it with a second device. QR codes of map locations on the internet can be useful when printed on an Incident Action Plan handed out to firefighters, but an image of one on an internet site is difficult or impossible to use.

Community meeting at Pfeiffer Fire
Community meeting at Pfeiffer Fire, December 18, 2013. Photo by Manuel Madrigal.



(UPDATED at 10:00 a.m. PST, December 18, 2013)

According to the Forest Service, the Pfeiffer Fire on the California coast at Big Sur is now being called 50 percent contained after burning 850 acres and destroying 22 structures, including 14 homes along Pfeiffer Ridge Road. Firefighters were able to save 24 other structures directly threatened by fire. The Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade reports that although her home was lost in the early hours of the fire, their Fire Chief Martha Karstens remains dedicated to the Big Sur community by staying on-duty managing fire brigade resources and responding to emergency incidents.

They are expecting complete containment at 6 p.m. on Friday, December 20.

Evacuations of the Pfeiffer Ridge Road area remain in effect.

Air tankers have been grounded for portions of the last two days due to smoke causing visibility problems. However nine helicopters have been dropping water on the fire. Other resources assigned to the fire include:

  • 20 crews
  • 46 engines
  • 2 dozers
  • 4 water tenders, and
  • 879 personnel



(UPDATED at 5:50 p.m. PST, December 17, 2013)

The Los Padres National Forest reports that the fire is 20 percent contained and has blackened 769 acres — 22 structures have burned. Full containment is expected Friday evening.


(UPDATED at 3:12 p.m. PST, December 17, 2013)

A community meeting for the residents of Big Sur will be held this afternoon December 17 at 4:00 pm at the Big Sur Station, Highway 1, Big Sur, CA.

An update from the U.S. Forest Service puts the fire at 500 acres and 5 percent contained. However, heavy smoke and rough terrain make mapping the fire difficult. The fire behavior has been described as running, with spot fires igniting up to 1/4 mile ahead.

The 495 people assigned to the fire include 18 hand crews, 44 engines, 2 dozers, and 3 water tenders.


(UPDATED at 10:20 a.m. PST, December 17, 2013)

Pfeiffer Fire at night from space
Pfeiffer Fire at night from space, very early in the morning on Monday and Tuesday. Bay Area National Weather Service. Click to enlarge.

The cause of the Pfeiffer Fire at Big Sur, California that started between Pfeiffer Ridge and Sycamore Canyon has not been determined. The Associated Press is quoting a U.S. Forest Service spokesperson as saying Tuesday morning it has burned about 550 acres and is 5 percent contained.

The Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade reported Monday afternoon that 15 to 20 homes had burned but that due to heavy smoke in the area it was difficult to determine the exact numbers. The fire is west of Highway 1, which is still open.

Map of Pfeiffer Fire
Map of Pfeiffer Fire, showing the APPROXIMATE location Monday night, December 17, 2013.

The map of the Pfeiffer Fire above depicts the approximate location of the fire based on data from a satellite which can detect heat.

The U.S. Forest Service is still responsible for suppression of the fire and has assigned 625 firefighters who were working under the direction of Curt Schwarm’s Incident Management Team. But at 6 a.m. Tuesday a Type 2 IMT will assume command, with Incident Commander Mark Nunez.

The weather forecast is more favorable for firefighters today, calling for much higher humidities of 30 to 35 percent, mostly sunny skies, and moderate winds. The wind should be 3 to 7 mph, but the direction could be quite variable, again providing a challenge for fire personnel.

At 9:04 a.m. today a nearby weather station recorded 66 degrees, 24 percent relative humidity, and a south-southeast wind of 2 mph gusting to 7 mph.


(UPDATED at 4:42 p.m. PST, December 16, 2013)

There is not much new information available about the Pfeiffer Fire in Big Sur, except that smoke is preventing fixed wing aircraft from dropping retardant, but helicopters are still able work their way into the area to drop water.

Below are some screen grab images from a video at KCRA:

Pfeiffer Fire

Pfeiffer Fire Pfeiffer Fire


(UPDATED at 2:44 p.m. PST, December 16, 2013)

Monterey County confirms that 15 homes have burned in the fire.

3-D map of Pfeiffer Fire area
3-D map of Pfeiffer Fire area


(Originally published at 11:54 a.m. PST, December 16, 2013; updated at 1:48 p.m. PST)

The Pfeiffer Fire in Big Sur, California has burned homes and forced the evacuation of residents in the coastal community 23 miles south of Monterey. Various unconfirmed reports indicate that between 2 and 15 homes have burned, including that of Big Sur Fire Chief Martha Karsten who told KSBW that her home burned at 9 a.m. Monday.

The fire is burning near Pfeiffer Ridge Road, west of Highway 1, about a mile east of the Pacific Ocean.

According to the U.S. Forest Service at 11:30 a.m. PST today, the fire has burned between 400 and 500 acres. Residents on Pfeiffer Ridge Road have evacuated. The following roads have been closed: Sycamore Canyon Road to Pfeiffer State Beach, Pfeiffer Ridge Road, and River End to Pfeiffer Ridge Road.

The wind recorded at the nearby RAWS weather station over the last 12 hours has been extremely variable, blowing from many different directions at 2 to 5 mph with gusts up to 18. The relative humidity throughout the night was quite low, maxing out at 25 percent. At 11:04 a.m. the RH was 17 percent and the temperature was 73 degrees. The forecast is for off-shore winds to continue today and tonight and for the RH to remain low, in the 13 to 18 percent range today. These are not extreme firefighting conditions, but the low RH and variable wind direction will pose challenges for firefighters.

Map showing location of Pfeiffer Fire
Map showing location of Pfeiffer Fire

The Pfeiffer Fire started late Sunday night shortly before midnight. Four air tankers and four helicopters began attacking the fire early Monday morning. More than 200 ground-based firefighters, including 10 hotshot crews according to the USFS, are working the fire, using engines and hand crews.


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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

6 thoughts on “Fire at Big Sur burns homes, forces evacuations”

  1. The area is a mix of State and private lands. Cal Fire sent the full cha cha, air tankers, helicopters, engines and fire crews. Big Sur has the healthiest poison oak in the country. Gabilan Conservation Camp (Salinas Valley) is the closest Cal Fire crew camp, About 1:15 hour response time. Five crews of 17 men each, one captain. Media pictures are those in bright orange. Cal Fire copter with snorkel is a super huey probably from Bear Valley (near Hollister) a twenty minute flight.

  2. Some crews are mixed some are full. R5 crews have 9 perm 26/0 positions plus several apprentices who are on year round. Engines have 4 26/0 positions, helitack has 8. There are quite a few folks around, although I would guess use or lose and Christmas have quite a few on leave. North Ops sent an engine strike team down south a few days ago for a predicted wind event, they got rerouted to Big Sur.

      1. Back in the day bill as you should remember If the fire season ran late like this year in California we would detail people to crews and fight fire till the rains came. I would assume they still do that. I fought fires on thanksgiving, Christmas, New years, And even Valentines day. In the 70’s on the Angeles. The Hot Shot Crews had a lot of seasoned fire fighters that detailed to them at the end of the regular season.


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