Fire crews from throughout California continued to pour into Santa Maria on Monday to fight the nearly 29,000-acre Alamo Fire just east of the city. By 7 p.m., about 2,000 firefighters were on the scene.
As they left their home towns behind, they arrived at a newly constructed city at Santa Maria Elks Rodeo Grounds, where the smell of manure mixes with smoke that has filled the air since the fire started on Thursday afternoon.
“When we have big fires we make a city that runs itself,” said Cal Fire spokesperson David Dantic, who arrived from Los Angeles County on Monday morning.
The sprawling grounds normally reserved for livestock and parking have been replaced by an army of trailers that serve as the epicenter of firefighting efforts.
A communications center is at the hub, where firefighters grab radios before heading about 35 miles east to the steep terrain. Medical and safety trailers are also set up. So is a group focused on the camp’s finances.
“Fires aren’t cheap,” Dantic said.
There’s also an old bus that’s been converted to a center for printing out plans plus trailers where fire chiefs meet to discuss tactics.
And there’s a long row of trailers filled with sleeping firefighters, many fresh off of a 12-hour shift, resting before their return. Each one is air conditioned and sleeps around 20. Camping tents are scattered between firetrucks. Dantic, for example, brought his own tent.
A make-shift mess hall has been set up under a large tent, along with shower trucks and a trailer where firefighters can drop off their laundry. They will need it. It’s estimated that the fire won’t be fully contained until July 22.
“Our job ... takes a toll sometimes. Although you like the guys you work with, you would rather be home with the family,” Dantic said.
But helping other people like Rudy Stowell makes it all worth it. Stowell was at the base camp on Monday afternoon, trying to find out when he would be able to return permanently to his home in Tepusquet Canyon. He was awakened at 2 a.m. on Saturday and told he needed to evacuate immediately.
“We waited and were loaded up and ready to go and we thought that they had the fire under control and then it came over the ridge,” Stowell said. “The smoke was so thick. The fire came and we could see it like lava coming down off the side of the mountain into the canyon. We decided it was time to leave.”
On Sunday, Stowell checked out his home of 54 years and found no damage. He credits the firefighters’ efforts.
“It is a real blessing,” Stowell said. “I’m 76 and I don’t know if I have the energy to rebuild.”