Everything was gray.
In the small community of Cal-Shasta, nestled on the border of Lake Nacimiento, cabins, garages, vehicles and even boat docks were all reduced to ash by the force of the Chimney Fire, which whipped through the area this weekend, destroying 12 structures and damaging 20.
The fire forced evacuations throughout the area Saturday and Sunday and grew Monday by about 25 percent to 5,400 acres as of 6:15 p.m. with 10 percent containment. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for San Luis Obispo County on Monday, which frees up resources and funds to help with emergency response.
On Monday, a smoky haze still clung in Cal-Shasta as firefighters mopped up after the fire.
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Around them, the aftermath of the blaze was evident: Several homes were leveled to their foundations by the flames, and the melted remains of motorcycles and boats poked through destroyed garages nearby. A boat dock, which in a time before drought and receding lake levels would have likely been safely out of harm’s way, was burned to a crisp.
Some of the structures were spared as the blaze jumped through the area, leaving nearly untouched homes sitting next to completely ravaged properties. And all of it was covered in a thin layer of gray ash.
About 17 miles away, hundreds of firefighters, officials and support operatives from across the West Coast stood gathered around a red Cal Fire truck waiting to hear how they would battle the destructive blaze.
Overnight conditions were favorable Sunday night, officials told the assembled mass of navy blue as the sun crept overhead, with cold, wet weather keeping much of the fire from spreading.
But that was expected to change Monday as weather predictions called for temperatures in the 90s and winds that could agitate the flames and draw it closer to dozens more homes and structures near the fire’s edge.
To compound the issue, the area in question hadn’t had a significant fire since the 1960s, meaning close to 60 years’ worth of dense, dry brush could quickly catch and spread flames without proper management. It also posed a big risk to firefighters already fatigued partway through a year filled with massive blazes.
“I know a lot of you have been on the road for weeks,” San Luis Obispo County Cal Fire Chief Scott Jalbert said to the crowd Monday. “I want you to hit this hard, but I also want you to pace yourself. It’s a long road. The key thing here that I want is that everybody goes home. Everybody goes home from this incident.”
Of particular concern for Cal Fire were the north and northeastern edges of the fire, where the blaze seemed to be burning hotter and more quickly.
“Today’s priorities are to continue structure protection ... to protect people’s homes and any people who did not choose to evacuate,” Cal Fire spokesman Bennett Milloy said Monday morning. “Also, it’s a significant priority today to gain some perimeter control so we see those containment numbers rise.”
Throughout the day Monday, Cal Fire representatives echoed that priority but were unable to say whether it had been accomplished as of press time.
A community coming together
More than just firefighters are involved in emergency response: Huge groups of volunteers are also needed to do everything from help feed the hundreds of hungry firefighters, set up shelters for evacuated residents and rescue animals endangered by the fire.
Local caterer Steven Sullivan, who owns Shave ’N Flav Catering out of Paso Robles, knows firsthand that it takes an army to feed all the emergency responders battling the blazes.
According to a post on his company’s Facebook page, Sullivan contracted with Cal Fire to serve breakfast and dinner at the fairgrounds command center, but his company needs volunteers to help serve the massive amounts of food for the more than 1,000 workers helping to battle the blaze.
On Monday morning, Sullivan posted that they were even having trouble keeping up with producing enough coffee for the workers, asking anyone with a percolator to come and help serve a daily dose of caffeine.
“This is what we do, I am very blessed to have so much good karma and outreach from our community. Thank you all from my family to yours,” Sullivan wrote in a Facebook comment. “There are homes burning, we need to keep these guys fed until their kitchens arrive tomorrow night. I cannot do it alone, its mayhem down there.”
Beside feeding the firefighters, volunteers are also important when it comes to manning evacuation shelters.
For the Chimney Fire, the San Luis Obispo County Office of Emergency Services, Red Cross and Cal Fire established an evacuation center at George Flamson Middle School in Paso Robles on Saturday night.
Ryan McMahon, the San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties Red Cross disaster program manager, was notified late Saturday night of the need for an evacuation center and within two hours had a team of 25 volunteers activated and setting up the shelter in the school auditorium.
They had no residents use the shelter the first night, however, and as a result, Cal Fire, OES and the Red Cross have since put it on standby, meaning the shelter isn’t open until further evacuations are ordered.
“The area that is being evacuated, there are a lot of lake homes, vacation homes, secondary residences, so I think some of the people who were evacuated were maybe here on vacation, and they’ve decided to go back home or to their primary residences,” McMahon said. “Those that have been affected and this was their primary residence year-round, they must have some friends and family in the area that are helping them out.”
McMahon said closing the shelter temporarily helps preserve volunteers’ energy so they don’t get burned out working hours that aren’t needed.
In the meantime, a room full of green cots, water bottles, games and fruit snacks is sitting waiting to either be used or disassembled once the threat of evacuations has passed.
“The firemen are working very very hard. They are throwing a lot of assets at this fire, which is fantastic,” McMahon said. “They are optimistic that today they’ll be able to make a lot of headway, but again if the winds change — the whole situation could change very quickly. It’s very fluid. We’re unsure what the day’s going to bring, but we are ready to go if needed.”
Another emergency response group that is waiting if needed is the Horse Emergency Evacuation Team.
The organization has a team of volunteers standing by to rescue animals endangered by the Chimney Fire but had not rescued any animals as of Monday morning.
“We are ready to do it, but we have not evacuated any yet,” said Susan McElhinney, HEET president.
The group tried to evacuate one horse Sunday but had to turn back because the fire was crossing the road, McElhinney said. If they do rescue any horses, they will be taken to nearby ranches out of the danger area.
David Sneed contributed to this story.
1,675 total personnel
39 hand crews
200 fire engines
7 air tankers
22 water tenders