SLO County's near-perfect weather masks a history of natural disasters

Special to The TribuneAugust 17, 2013 

An early warning siren at Port San Luis.

JOHN LINDSEY — Special to The Tribune

Overall, large-scale emergencies in San Luis Obispo County are rare. With some of the best weather in the world, we are often lulled into a false sense of security about the possibility of disasters, but they do occur from time to time.

In April 1926, a Pacific storm produced lightning that struck and set fire to large oil tanks along Tank Farm Road in San Luis Obispo. Millions of gallons of oil burned. In fact, it was reported that burning oil made it all the way to Avila Beach by way of San Luis Obispo Creek. Intense heat from these fires produced fire whirls, one of which picked up a house and killed the two occupants inside.

In 1969, a series of storms produced nearly 40 inches of rain in San Luis Obispo during January and February and caused severe flooding. 

In August of 1994 nearly 2,000 firefighters battled the Highway 41 fire fueled by gale force northwesterly winds and 100-degree heat. It consumed almost 50,000 acres and took 42 homes. The fire raced over the Santa Lucia Mountains toward northern San Luis Obispo, which caused the evacuation of Cal Poly along with the entire town of Santa Margarita. The mayor of San Luis Obispo at the time told residents to listen to their radios for instructions on whether to flee their homes.
Just seven months later, a stalled cold front produced astounding 24-hour rainfall totals throughout the Central Coast on March 9, 1995. Cal Poly recorded around 8 inches of rain. Some locations in the Santa Lucia Mountains and along the Cuesta Grade reported rainfall amounts exceeding 12 inches. Needless to say, parts of the county experienced severe flooding.

The magnitude of the above perils put into sharp focus the need for all of us to prepare for disasters.

To help prepare for these and other type of emergencies, the county of San Luis Obispo operates 131 early warning sirens that stretch from coastal Cayucos to northern Nipomo Mesa and east through San Luis Obispo.  PG&E owns and maintains the sirens in a high state of readiness for the County.

The County can sound the sirens to the notify the public to any local emergency --- depending on the emergency, all the sirens or just a few in selected areas can be sounded using encrypted commands over a secured radio signal.  “Very few counties in California has such an extensive system of early warning sirens”, said Ron Alsop, Emergency Services Manager at County Office of Emergency Services.
To ensure that the sirens operate as designed, they will be tested this upcoming Saturday, Aug. 24. The sirens will sound at noon and again at 12:30 and will last for 3 to 5 minutes.

 The first test of the sirens are activated from the counties’ primary activation location then are tested again from an alternate site about 25 minutes later.  During these tests, no action is required on the part of the public. If you hear sirens at any other time, tune to a local radio or television station for emergency announcements. 

Located at each siren on Saturday will be volunteers from PG&E and Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) to verify that they worked. For their service, a $10,000 grant from PG&E is provided and later divided up between these worthy organizations that work with VOAD. Receiving a portion of the grant funds this year are: Woods Humane Society, Food Bank Coalition of SLO County, Horse Emergency Evacuation Team, American Red Cross (SLO Chapter), San Luis Obispo County Emergency Communications Council and the Homeless Animals Rescue Team.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a media relations representative for PG&E and a longtime local meteorologist. He is president of the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers. If you have a question, send him an email at

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