In his 36 fire seasons, Cal Fire/San Luis Obispo County Fire Chief Robert Lewin has seen numerous fires on the Cuesta Grade.
Those fires had always been stopped at or before they reached east Cuesta Ridge, Lewin recalled Tuesday. But the fire that started at 6:18 p.m. Aug. 16 along Highway 101 was different: three separate blazes ranging from 3 to 6 acres each, forcing firefighters to hit six flanks at once and making their work more complex.
Tinder-dry vegetation, steep terrain and warm weather complicated their efforts.
Still, Lewin thought the fire would be contained before long.
Firefighters planned to hit the fire hard Aug. 17. There would be more days of mop-up work, but “we’re going to get it,” he recalled.
Then, about 2 p.m. that day, the fire jumped the lines that crews had made.
“When the fire spotted over,” Lewin said, “that was a game changer.”
To date, the Cuesta Fire has charred more than 2,400 acres (revised down from 3,500 acres) in an area that had not burned in about 30 years. As of Tuesday, it was 85 percent contained and had cost more than $13.6 million to fight, with more than 1,800 personnel assigned at its peak.
On Tuesday morning, Lewin drove onto Santa Margarita Ranch to illustrate one of the fire’s most critical points: when it came close to hitting the town of Santa Margarita.
Once the fire jumped over the ridge Aug. 17, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Laurie Donnelly worked to move everyone working the highway side of the blaze to the other side. Fire officials discussed plans to keep the flames east of Highway 101, south of Santa Margarita, and west of Miller Flat, a mostly flat, grassy area southeast of town.
“We get into a discussion about whether we have to evacuate Santa Margarita,” Lewin recalled. A line is drawn — if the fire reaches high-voltage power lines less than a half-mile from Santa Margarita, the town will be evacuated.
“I get on the radio to Captain (Zach) Nichols and say, ‘Let us know when the fire reaches the KV lines,’ ” Lewin said. “His reply back is, ‘It’s here now.’ ”
That’s when Lewin looked at a map of Santa Margarita and decided to evacuate south of the railroad tracks that run along Highway 58 through town, allowing downtown businesses to remain open.
The evacuation order was issued at 3:18 p.m. As San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office deputies helped enforce the order and the American Red Cross mobilized to support evacuees, Donnelly ordered 10 more engines from fire departments around the county.
“The last thing we want is the fire to be fought in the back of people’s homes,” Lewin said. “We want to put the fire out where it is.”
Lewin and Deputy Chief Steve Reeder then drove around the ranch. The winds were squirrely, but evening was coming on, bringing cooler temperatures and higher humidity levels.
Sometime after nightfall, another line was drawn on the map. This time, it was a dirt ranch road about a quarter mile from town.
Engine companies arrived from departments across San Luis Obispo County, from San Miguel to Morro Bay, and even a crew from California Men’s Colony came to help.
“The timing was right,” Lewin said. “It had to happen right then.”
Following a plan organized by Donnelly and Nichols, bulldozers improved the line as crews used drip torches to set the grass ablaze. The backfire burned up the fuel in the main fire’s path, stopping its march toward town.
As he navigated a bumpy dirt road Tuesday, Lewin pointed out a mile-long stretch of blackened earth where the backfires were lit. Much of the other side of the road remains golden brown, untouched by flames.
But flames on the ridge were still glowing when Lewin left Santa Margarita at about 1 a.m. Aug. 18.
Lewin and Robert Baird, forest supervisor for Los Padres National Forest, shared unified command of the blaze until a 50-person incident management team arrived to manage the fire starting Aug. 19, when it had grown larger than local firefighters could battle on their own. That team is expected to transition out Wednesday.
The focus shifted south, to stop the fire’s spread into the Santa Lucia Wilderness.
With a large air support presence, cooler weather last weekend helped firefighters gain control of the fire in Water Canyon, south of Santa Margarita in the Santa Lucia Wilderness.
Hundreds of firefighters have worked their way for days in steep terrain with “nasty, brushy poison oak” and drought-stricken trees falling around them, Lewin said.
While crews are close to containing the fire, their work is not over.
“We’ll be out here for days monitoring it,” Lewin said.