One of the most important parts of fighting the Cuesta Fire actually happens miles away from the smoke and flames, at a temporary incident command center in Camp San Luis Obispo.
Just after 10 a.m. Wednesday, a group of Cal Fire and U.S. Forest Service officials gathered in a large, wood-paneled classroom at the Army National Guard base to brief a group of about 35 people on the status of the fire and the current strategy for fighting it.
The assembled group was tense and quiet as Cal Fire liaison officer Mike Bradley and U.S. Forest Service ranger Nate Rezeau stepped forward to update everyone on Tuesday night's efforts by 800 firefighters from throughout California to gain control over the wildfire that raged south of the town of Santa Margarita, threatening 339 homes.
The meeting was one of several held during the day as part of Cal Fire's emergency response structure, which brings in a special team of about 50 firefighters and officials from across the state to organize the response for large fires and emergencies. They take over much of the planning from local agencies, so those agencies can focus on their day-to-day duties like responding to house fires and rescues.
The incident team members immediately respond to large fires anywhere in the state — public information officer and Santa Clara County Fire Department firefighter Bill Murphy said he drove straight from soccer practice in San Jose to Camp San Luis Obispo when the response team was activated Tuesday night.
Wednesday marked the first official day of planning led by the incident management team, known as Incident Management Team 4.
Creating a small city
Throughout the 24-hour planning cycle, the team will hold numerous meetings to craft strategies for controlling the fire; gather available resources; develop a rotation schedule for the firefighters; set up a home base at Camp San Luis Obispo with sleeping units, offices, a communications center and mess hall; and most importantly, keep the public safe and informed about the status of the blaze, Murphy said.
"We've got almost 1,000 people here now," he said. "One thousand people eat a lot of food. One thousand showers a day is a lot of showers. We've got, essentially, a small city that gets built to support all that. But we've got those people here now, so we've got to get all those things set up now.
"Somebody coming off the line, especially for those initial attack resources, they're coming off 24 or in some cases 36 hours that they've been out there. When they get to base they want to rest, they want to eat and they want to get cleaned up. We're here to make sure that happens."
The day started with an operations briefing at 7 a.m. in which the officials briefed a new crew of firefighters with that day's strategy — to keep the fire north of the Lowe Mountain lookout, south of Hwy. 58, east of Hwy. 101 and west of Miller Flat — essentially keeping the fire from spreading into Santa Margarita and the Santa Lucia Wilderness area where the fire would be exponentially more difficult to fight because of steep hills and trees, Murphy said.
The crews were then dismissed to go grab sack lunches from the mobile kitchen unit located inside a gated area on the north end of Camp San Luis Obispo, before walking past the sleeping units being trucked in that morning and heading to their rigs to drive out to the fire.
Three hours later, the incident response team faced a different crowd in another part of Camp San Luis Obispo for the first of its daily "cooperators meetings" in which local representatives with a vested interest in the fire and firefighting strategy can share their concerns.
The assembled audience represented a wide swath of San Luis Obispo County interests: Representatives from Pacific Gas & Electric, the local Red Cross Chapter, San Luis Obispo County Office of Emergency Services, Caltrans, County Public Works, Atascadero School District and Union Pacific Railroad were on hand to be updated about the fire and share individual concerns.
During the meeting, the team and the representatives began working on a number of public concerns, namely whether to allow teachers into Santa Margarita Elementary School to prepare their classrooms for students (the school was told it could not hold its first day of classes Wednesday because it was in the evacuation zone), re-opening a closed lane on Highway 101, and how to fight the fire if it spreads to the dense Santa Lucia Wilderness area.
"People don't realize that there are a number of utilities that run through these sites that are largely unseen, but that could be impacted by firefighting responses," Murphy said. "There are power lines throughout there that if those were impacted, it would impact the entire grid. There are high-pressure gas lines that are close to the surface, and if we drove a bulldozer over it, that would be a problem. It's a complex puzzle that has to be pieced together."
The team will hold several other meetings throughout the day, before repeating the process again the next day and the following day until the fire is contained, Murphy said.
Murphy said the response team is a "well-oiled machine" by this point in the year.
"Most of the people you see here do this every summer," he said. "Each area has its own unique challenges as far as fires — fires burn differently in different spots, fuels are a little bit different in different spots in the state, and wind and weather conditions can be different — but because we do this pretty much each summer, it's a very well-exercised system by now."