For those fighting the Cuesta Fire, “monster trees” are one of the biggest threats, said firefighter Andy Turner.
“About every 15 minutes to 30 minutes, there’s a big tree falling,” said Turner, a battalion chief with a Cal Fire unit from Tulare. “And every time a tree falls, it strikes a nerve with every person on this strike team. Because we’ve had people injured this summer, we’ve had fatalities this summer. And so it kind of perks you up, scares you for a minute, and you have to get back in and get to work.”
In its fifth day, the wildfire still covered 3,500 acres between Santa Margarita and San Luis Obispo, said Cal Fire spokeman Bennet Milloy. The fire, believed to have been caused by a vehicle on Sunday, was roughly 20 percent contained. But more importantly, the town of Santa Margarita was safe, the fire mostly relegated to Water Canyon to the south.
Thursday morning, a steady stream of traffic rolled in and out of Camp San Luis Obispo, where nearly 740 firefighters from around the state are provided with food, beds and showers in between 24-hour shifts fighting the blaze. Just outside the camp, a sandwich board at the public information trailer posts updates on the Cuesta Fire plus others around the state. According to a map posted on the board, there are currently 17 active fires. Humboldt County has several, including a 45,466-acre fire.
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The Cuesta Fire might seem small by comparison, Milloy said, but what’s more important is how close a fire is to structures, communications equipment or other important features of daily life. The Cuesta Fire’s proximity to Santa Margarita forced evacuations and a 1-day school closure.
“I never thought that part was in danger,” said Troy Swickard, a fire captain with the Ventura County Fire Department, who said bulldozers, air tankers and helicopters had successfully fended off flames. “I knew that they were evacuating, but I think that was based on health issues and the smoke that was covering the community.”
North of the town Thursday, a bald eagle sat perched on a tree top near Highway 101, smoke still visible but not as foreboding as it had been here earlier in the week. Even the Cuesta Grade, where flames moved toward Highway 101 Monday, looked calmer Thursday with once billowing smoke reduced to a few smoldering lines.
Sunday night, it didn’t look as promising, as flames approached Santa Margarita.
“The fire was blowing through pretty hard,” Swickard said. “There were a lot of ground fuels, or what we call leaf litter that was in there, so it was real smoky for us getting in there to work.”Initially, he said, they were understaffed.
“It was a lot of open country when we first got here and not enough resources at the time, just because everybody is at all the different fires throughout the state of California,” Swickard said.
At Camp San Luis Obispo, trucks were parked in rows, not far from a food area set up for the firefighters just getting back from their shifts. Also returning from shifts were dozens of prison inmates, wearing orange jumpsuits. The Cuesta Conservation Camp, located at Camp San Luis Obispo, trains inmates to become firefighters who are called in to assist the working firefighters.
In addition to the 740 civilian firefighters currently fighting the blaze, another 360 inmates from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are assisting on the Cuesta Fire, said CDCR spokesperson Bill Sessa. The medium security inmates work in 12- to 14-man crews and are supervised by Cal Fire on the fire lines.
Meanwhile, the civilian firefighters often work in strike teams, consisting of five engines and 21 people.
“We left home on the 29th of July,” said Turner, the Tulare firefighter. “So I think that puts us at 23 or 24 days — I haven’t counted. But we’ve been away a long time. I think this is our fourth fire since we left home.”
James Barnes, a firefighter specialist with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said his team is on call to fight fires from San Diego to the Oregon border. The same day his crew had helped contain the Warm Fire in Los Angeles County, it was called up to San Luis Obispo. The next morning, he had to be prepared to hike 1,200-foot elevation changes.
“Our job is a Class-4 arduous position, which means that you’ve got to be fit and ready to put on 60-75 pounds of gear and hike,” said Barnes, standing a physically fit 6-foot-6 and looking even taller in boots. “I look forward to the hiking — I love it.”
Different parts of the county have different fuels, Barnes said. In Southern California, they deal more with brush, while in Northern California they confront 80-foot ponderosa trees and redwoods. The Cuesta Fire features many oak trees that might have to be cleared.
“So we have to carry another 30-40 pounds of chainsaw equipment,” he said.
Regardless of the fuel, Turner said, the story is the same everywhere: “The drought and dryness of the fuel is driving the fires.”
His crew followed another line that had been closer to the flames near Santa Margarita.
“The glorified part of the fire is when the flaming front is coming — the great photos,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is, you have to secure the line behind it. Otherwise, it will just take off again and create another flaming front.”
Using chain saws to separate burned from unburned fuel and hosing off hot spots, his crew has helped keep the fires smoldered.
Yet, the fire is likely to continue into next week.
The toughest part of the day, firefighters said, is between noon and roughly 2 a.m. At 2 or 3 in the morning, the fire settles into calmer conditions, providing an opportunity to rest.
“It was cold last night so it’s very difficult to take a serious nap because of the conditions,” Barnes said. “You don’t get comfortable.”
Despite just coming off a 24-hour shift, Turner appeared alert near his truck. He’ll have the day to rest before attending a 5 a.m. briefing Friday. But right now he’s not thinking of the next trip to the grade.
“I miss my family right now,” he said. “All these guys – 21 of them – are feeling the same way.”