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Park Hill Fire, Day 2: Firefighters from around the state battle 1,800-acre blaze

A Cal Fire truck goes up the driveway to a home on Las Pilitas Road on Sunday morning.
A Cal Fire truck goes up the driveway to a home on Las Pilitas Road on Sunday morning.

UPDATE: 6:05 p.m.: Firefighters from around the state continued a second day battling the Park Hill fire east of Santa Margarita, gaining substantial ground in containing the largest wildfire to blacken San Luis Obispo County in nearly two decades.

By evening, the fire had burned 1,800 acres and was 50 percent contained. Cal Fire’s preliminary estimate was that two homes and several outbuildings burned, although investigators will still continue to assess the damage on Monday.

On Sunday, Cal Fire estimated the total cost of the fire at about $1.7 million. One civilian was injured although no details were available on Sunday.

About 700 firefighters, from as far away as Los Angeles County and Northern California, helped fight the fire, which was first reported at about 2:20 p.m. Saturday near Park Hill and Las Pilitas roads, about 10 miles east of Santa Margarita.

Cal Fire crews and local fire departments initially jumped on the fire, which quickly grew as it devoured the bone-dry brush that blankets the county in this fourth year of drought. Some local Cal Fire crews had been sent to fight wildfires in Santa Barbara and Mariposa counties, but were called back to the Park Hill fire, Cal Fire Division Chief Steve Reeder said.

At a briefing Sunday for newly arrived firefighters, Cal Fire Division Chief John Richardson said that the 700 firefighters were all the resources the Park Hill fire would probably get.

"We were told last night that no more help is coming in because of fires around the state," he said Sunday. Four planes and six helicopters also were brought in, Reeder said.

Limited water supply from the drought also presented a challenge, with Reeder warning the new arrivals, “Santa Maria is bone dry. We have wells going dry there every day.”

Helicopters were taking water from Santa Margarita Lake, ranch ponds and sewage treatment plants, if available. Reeder said using seawater was an option but was corrosive to the aircraft.

On Saturday, sheriff deputies went to 72 homes to evacuate residents, although some refused to leave. The evacuation was lifted at 5 p.m. Sunday and the Red Cross closed an emergency shelter it had opened at Santa Margarita Elementary School.

A steady flow of 10 to 15 people at any given time were at the shelter while it was open Saturday and Sunday, with nine people spending the night, Red Cross spokeswoman Kristin Inman said.

Six large animals and many smaller ones were evacuated during the fire by the Horse Emergency Evacuation Team (HEET), according to Cal Fire.

By Sunday evening, all but three PG&E customers had their power restored after utility crews worked behind firefighters to replace burned power poles and repair lines.

Cal Fire Chief Robert Lewin said the Park Hill fire was the largest in the county since the massive Logan fire in 1997, which burned about 50,000 acres east of Huasna.

UPDATE 3:40 p.m.: The Park Hill fire has spread to 1,800 acres and remained 50 percent contained as of 2:30 p.m., according to Cal Fire offocials, who said they will lift the evacuation order for the area at 5 p.m.

A total of 72 properties were evacuated, and preliminary assessments show that two homes and several outbuildings were destroyed, Cal Fire said, adding that further assessments will be conducted Monday. Power has been restored to 106 of 109 properties.

The fire is currently estimated to cost $1.7 million. The cause is still under investigation. One civilian was injured, Cal Fire said.

Only residents are permitted in the fire area. Sheriff’s Office deputies and CHP will continue to patrol the area, and firefighters will remain on the scene for several more days to ensure that the fire is fully contained.

UPDATE 2:20 p.m.: The Park Hill fire has spread to 1,600 acres and was about 50 percent contained as of 2 p.m., Cal Fire officials said. Park Hill Road, Las Pilitas Road and River Road near the fire remain closed and a voluntary evacuation is still in effect.

PG&E has restored power to all but three customers and those should get electricity later this afternoon, PG&E spokeswoman Kristin Inman said. 

ORIGINAL STORY: The wildfire burning east of Santa Margarita grew to 1,200 acres overnight and more firefighters from around the state have arrived to help battle the blaze, Cal Fire officials said Sunday morning.

Two homes have burned from the fire, which was 15 percent contained Sunday morning, Cal Fire spokeswoman Es Berliner said.

"There's possibly more (homes burned)," Berliner said. They will have an assessment team out there this morning."

At a 7 a.m. briefing, Cal Fire officials said an estimated 700 firefighters were now on what they call the Park Hill Fire because of its proximity to Park Hill Road and Las Pilitas Road several miles east of Santa Margarita.

The fire was reported at about 2:20 p.m. Saturday in that area. Cal Fire Battalion Chief Tom McEwen said during the briefing that withing 20 minutes the fire had doubled in size, moving north because of winds, then switching direction and burning southeast.

"The wind was our dominant factor yesterday," he said. "The wind is going to drive this fire along with a lot of dry brush out there."

Four planes and six helicopters will fight the fire Sunday, Cal Fire Division Chief Steve Reeder said, along with firefighters from as far away as Los Angeles and Northern California.

Reeder thanked the 125 firefighters who had just arrived at the Cal Fire base camp at Camp San Luis Obispo early Sunday. He said they would be relieving crews that had been on the fire lines since Saturday afternoon.

"I'm counting on you to put this thing to bed today," Reeder told them.

Division Chief John Richardson said that with fires up and down the state, the 700 firefighters were all the resources the Parkhill fire would probably get.

"We were told last night that no more help is coming in because of fires around the state," he said.

Cal Fire officials said that burned power lines and trees that had fallen were particular hazards in the fire area. Limited water supply from the drought also presents a challenge, officials said. Helicopters were taking water from Santa Margarita Lake on Saturday and will continue to do that on Sunday, along with possibly using water from sewage treatment plants and ranch ponds, if available.

Reeder said that seawater is an option but is corrosive to the aircraft.

As firefighters were continuing to gain control of the fire, PG&E crews worked through the night to restore power to customers in the fire area. As of 10 a.m. Sunday, about 100 customers were still without electricity, down from 430 customers without power on Saturday.

CAL FIRE INFORMATION:

For updated information on the Park Hill Fire, visit the Cal Fire website's incident report.

EMERGENCY SHELTER:

An emergency shelter operated by the American Red Cross of the Central Coast remains open at Santa Margarita Elementary School on H Street in Santa Margarita. The Red Cross is providing water, snacks and updates on the fire as they become available.

ANIMAL EVACATIONS:

Horse Emergency Evacuation Team, HEET, a non-profit organization of volunteers, has rescued four horses from the Park Hill fire, said HEET vice president Desiree Newman.

As of 7 p.m. Saturday, Cal Fire did not allow HEET to enter the area.

HEET is rescuing sheep, goats, dogs and most other animals in addition to horses. There are currently four or five crews in their staging area at the corner of Las Pilitas and Park Hill roads.

The rescued animals are taken to Vulcan Mesa Ranch at 4500 Rocky Canyon Rd. in Atascadero where they are fed, checked for injuries and kept until the owners can pick them up.

HEET always needs volunteers and trailers. Anyone interested to volunteer can call HEET dispatch at (805)550-0213.

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