As deadly and devastating wildfires consume swaths of densely populated California communities — first to the north and now to the south — San Luis Obispo County residents surrounded by golden hills and dry forests wonder: Are we next?
“It can happen and almost has happened,” county Emergency Services Manger Ron Alsop said.
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The risk of wildfire flattening entire neighborhoods and hundreds of homes here was real in July 1985, when 30-foot flames in what would be the 75,000-acre Las Pilitas Fire charged over Cuesta Grade into the city of San Luis Obispo.
Exhausted fire crews held the fire at the fences of several homes with the help of a shift in wind and a timely influx of reinforcements. At the end of a nine-day fight, the fire had destroyed 10 homes, a two-story recreational hall, administration building and dorms in the Las Pilitas Road and Lopez Lake areas.
San Luis Obispo County has one of the worst fire environments in the state for large damaging wildfires, according to a local hazard mitigation plan. Densely populated communities are surrounded by open lands of the hot and dry Santa Lucia Mountains and inland valleys that can fuel fast-moving flames.
Cool and wet winters historically tapered the risk, ending fire season. But that break is increasingly unreliable.
“We’re still in fire season. We haven’t gotten any significant rains to green up a lot of the area. Fuels are still able and willing to burn. We’re not done here yet,” said Cal Fire Division Chief Steve Crawford.
While much of the county is at high risk for wildfire, residents should find relief in the knowledge that the winds that fueled the devastating fires across the state this year do not blow as strong here.
Santa Ana winds spread the Thomas Fire in Southern California into the fifth largest in the state’s history. Similarly, strong gusts from the Diablo winds fanned the flames of the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County.
“The advantage (in San Luis Obispo County) is, we’re getting the winds, but it’s not blowing anywhere near the significance the other fires have gotten. The winds here will subside and temperatures drop significantly (at night).”
Since the Las Pilitas Fire, Crawford said, Cal Fire is better equipped to defend communities with access to large air tankers and the effects of strong public education campaigns urging rural residents to maintain defensible spaces in the aim of prevention.
The organization also created per-attack planning maps, which help firefighters from out of the area visualize neighborhoods, and locate addresses and water sources, Crawford said.
Even so, dozens of homes burned in the vacation community of Cal Shasta near Lake Nacimiento during the Chimney fire in 2016.
Wildfires in SLO County
In the history of great wildfires in California, the Central Coast has not been left unscorched.
Unruly flames swept through large swaths of land, burning homes on the edge of wildlands and threatening densely populated communities.
Here’s a look at seven large local fires, in order by acreage:
1. The Highway 58 Fire burned 106,000 acres and destroyed 13 homes and numerous other structures and vehicles in September 1996. It started near Highway 58 and Shell Creek Road, quickly spread to the south and east into the Los Padres National Forest, and died just east of Pozo.
2. The Las Pilitas Fire burned 75,000 acres and destroyed 10 homes in July 1985. It started on Las Pilitas Road near Santa Margarita and burned into coastal mountains behind the cities of Arroyo Grande and San Luis Obispo.
3. The Logan Fire burned 50,000 acres in a remote, unpopulated area in August 1997. It burned in the southeast portion of the coastal mountains near Highway 166.
4. The Highway 41 Fire burned 49,000 acres and destroyed 42 homes, 61 other structures and 91 vehicles in August 1994, the worst of the damage occurring in Tassajara Canyon. It started in the coastal mountains, threatening Morro Bay until the winds shifted it in the direction of Atascadero.
5. The Chimney Fire burned 46,235 acres and destroyed 49 homes and 21 other structures in August 2016. It broke out near Lake Nacimiento, burned along the Santa Lucia ridge line and came within two miles of Hearst Castle.
6. The Alamo Fire burned 28,687 acres and destroyed one home and 13 other structures in July 2017. The fire started near the Twitchell Reservoir in San Luis Obispo County east of Santa Maria and spread to mostly burn in Santa Barbara County.
7. The Chispa Fire burned 10,000 acres and destroyed 12 homes and numerous outbuildings in July 1989. It started near the Chalk Mountain Golf Course in Atascadero and spread toward Santa Margarita.