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Park Hill Fire, Day 1: Wildfire near Santa Margarita prompts hundreds to evacuate

A fire was burning in the Park Hill area near Santa Margarita on Saturday. This photo was taken in the 2000 block of Park Hill Road.
A fire was burning in the Park Hill area near Santa Margarita on Saturday. This photo was taken in the 2000 block of Park Hill Road.

Hundreds of residents evacuated their homes as a fast-moving wildfire burned out of control east of Santa Margarita across 1,000 acres on Saturday afternoon as firefighters from around the state headed to the area to battle the flames.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Tom McEwen said at 7 p.m. that the fire was completely uncontained and “has the potential to spread to 2,000 acres.”

The cause of the fire was unknown and spread quickly in the Park Hill Road and Las Pilitas Road area after it was reported at about 2:23 p.m., McEwen said. Several homes may have burned, although McEwen said he did not have an exact count. Earlier in the day a Cal Fire spokesman said three homes had burned. No injuries were reported.

At 10 p.m. Cal Fire spokeswoman Es Berliner said the fire was not contained and two structures were known to have burned. 

Park Hill and Las Pilitas roads remained closed Saturday night. Fire crews were planning to hold the blaze so that it didn’t spread past River Road, about nine miles down Park Hill Road from Highway 58, Berliner said.

At least one power line burned and a live wire fell onto the 3000 block of Park Hill Road at about 5 p.m., blocking people from evacuating until emergency workers were able to move it aside.

About 430 PG&E customers lost power as a result of the fire, but 328 of those customers had their electricity restored by 7 p.m., PG&E spokeswoman Jacqueline Ratto said. She said crews would continue to work in the area through the night.

The County Department of Animal Control and the private Horse Emergency Evacuation Team were helping residents to evacuate their animals and livestock.

The Red Cross set up an evacuation center at Santa Margarita Elementary to provide residents with snacks, water, and a place to gather, Red Cross spokeswoman Jessica Piffero said.

"We will be able to provide updates to residents (on the status of the fire) as it becomes available," she said. If at least a dozen people need a place to spend the night, the Red Cross would transition the center into an overnight shelter, she said.

At 10 p.m., Piffero said the shelter was opened for the night.

Sheriff's deputies had gone door-to-door in the Las Pilitas and Park Hill road areas during the afternoon, telling people to evacuate. The fire has burned on both sides of Las Pilitas Road, between Park Hill Road and Highway 58.

McEwen said that 25 engines, six aircraft and other equipment including bulldozers and hand crews were brought in during the afternoon, with another 15 engines headed to the area.

“We are going to be busting it all night out here,” he said. “We’re going to have a lot of people in the dark tonight.”

Winds were moderate during the day, blowing at about 2 mph from the southeast with gusts of up to 9 miles per hour, according to SLOweather.com. Still, McEwen said the gusts were the biggest challenge to firefighters because they kept shifting, causing the flames to veer. “It could go in any direction,” he said.

Las Pilitas Road resident Glenn Westbrook had just taken meat out of his freezer to barbecue when he noticed fire across the street.

"By the time I told the boys to get the animals it had jumped the road," said Westbrook, who lives on 32 acres about 6.5 miles down Las Pilitas off Pozo Road.

He said he left between 2:30 and 2:45 p.m., about the time the fire was reported to have started.

He did not receive an evacuation order. His son and son's friend saved a goat, a rooster and a dog, left the cat, and took the animals to a friend’s house in Santa Margarita.

He showed up at Santa Margarita Elementary School looking for information – he'd heard that four structures had burned and was wondering if one of them was his.

"I'm just glad I got myself, my son," he said. "I just got the boys, we got the animals."

By early evening, about a half-dozen people had shown showed up at the elementary school seeking information or possible shelter if they couldn't get back home during the night.

Sean Dinneen, who lives on Park Hill Road, rode his motorcycle home from a day in Santa Barbara and spotted smoke from the fire from Highway 101.

"The only thing I knew coming up 101, I could see a huge plume of smoke from the fire but I had no idea it was so close," he said.

He talked by text message to his landlord, who lives on the same property, who was not evacuated and said then that the fire was about a mile and a half east of them.

ROAD CLOSURES:

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office said two roads will be close until noon Sunday. they are Park Hill Road between River Road and Seven Oaks Way; River Road to Pozo Road.

EVACUATION CENTER:

The Red Cross is operating an overnight shelter at Santa Margarita Elementary School on H Street in Santa Margarita.

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