Day 6: Chimney fire grows to 11,233 acres, 33 percent contained

The Chimney Fire grew by several thousand acres Thursday as gusting winds whipped up flames, particularly along the Carrol Canyon area at the southwestern edge of the blaze where helicopters and airtankers spent much of the day bombarding the rugged terrain with water and fire retardant.

By evening, the fire had spread to 11,233 acres — up from 8,300 acres in the morning — but containment had also increased, although incrementally, from 30 percent to 33 percent. With the heaviest activity along the isolated southwestern edge of the blaze, property damage remained unchanged with 32 homes and 13 outbuildings destroyed and seven more damaged, mostly in the northeast area where neighborhoods cluster around Nacimiento Lake.

That northern edge of the fire remained controlled, Cal Fire officials said. About 240 PG&E customers were without power, and mandatory evacuations remained in effect at Running Deer Ranch, Tri-County, Cal Shasta, Ranchos del Lago and South Shore Village.

The fire crossed the primary holding line firefighters had established in a canyon drainage below the Rocky Butte Truck Trail, which is where Cal Fire had hoped to stop the fire’s westward advance, Cal Fire spokesman Bennet Milloy said Thursday evening.

Dozers had been widening the trail for several days, and other large equipment was creating a buffer zone around Rocky Butte, where towers hold crucial communication equipment. Some historic cabins and homes are scattered along the canyon leading to the ridgetop.

What tipped the balance Thursday was the wind, which grounded airtankers for about two hours in the late afternoon when gusts exceeded 30 mph, Milloy said. Water-dropping helicopters were still allowed to fly, but the combination of winds and a drop in overhead fighting power contributed to the fire’s spread, he said.

“The wind definitely had an impact on the fire’s growth,” Milloy said. “On that section where the fire grew, the retardant (which the planes carry) was the primary tool, that we were unable to use for awhile.”

Forecasts called for mild winds to continue into the early evening and then lessen as the marine layer moved inland.

With the fire still active, 2,459 firefighters from San Diego to Lake Tahoe remained in the battle Thursday. Prison inmates and private bulldozer operators worked alongside one other in pursuit of a common goal: containing the flames.

Wherever Californians find wildfires, they’ll find a swarm of yellow jackets headed toward the flames. Cal Fire and city fire department crews literally go where the wind takes them during fire season, when a spark and a strong breeze are enough to send a forest up in flames.

On Lime Mountain, near a limestone mine, firefighters gathered to work the containment lines Thursday. Robert Hughes of the Santa Fe Springs Department of Fire and Rescue in Los Angeles County sat in the front seat of a fire engine while waiting for his assignment.

Hughes said his crew met up in Burbank and was sent to Paso Robles soon after the fire started. They patrolled the Oak Hills area early on, Hughes said, and Wednesday helped mop up flames in the northwestern corner of the fire.

The Chimney Fire is the fourth wildfire Hughes has battled this year; he also recently worked the 79,000-acre Soberanes Fire near Big Sur that began July 22 and is still burning at 60 percent containment.

Hughes’ favorite part of his job? “You don’t know what’s going to happen when you come to work.”

While in the midst of a previous career in tech, Hughes said he saw firefighters working near the freeway when he was stuck in traffic one day, which piqued his interest in pursuing the profession.

Now, 20 years later, he said he’s “never looked back.”

Nearby, Capt. Sean Landavazo of Cal Fire Riverside was preparing to take a 17-person crew of prison inmate firefighters out to the fire lines. Minimum security inmates who’ve never exhibited violent behavior while incarcerated or been convicted of sexual offenses or arson can volunteer to be trained as firefighters, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The inmates wear special orange fire suits, and Landavazo said they’re housed in a secure area while working fires.

“It’s them wanting to give back,” he said.

Training the inmates isn’t easy, Landavazo said, but “if you can turn one guy around, it’s worth it.”

Landavazo said it’s not easy being away from his wife and young children, but most firefighters understand the sacrifices that come with the profession.

“We know we’re in for the long haul this fire season,” he said.

Past the mine, bulldozer operators waited atop a hill to receive their assignments. Active fires could be seen burning on hillsides across the way. Flames shot out from the green woodlands, sending dark smoke into the air. Planes dropping bright pink retardant and helicopters dousing the fire with water cut through the clouds.

Jeff Tressler, a bulldozer operator for John Hertzig in Amador County, near Lake Tahoe, said his company contracts with Cal Fire to help at fires across the state. Tressler said he’s spent 40 days during the past two months fighting fires.

Battling flames with bulldozers is “exciting,” Tressler said, recounting a time when he had to dig lines around homes to keep them from burning.

Down a rocky hill, firefighters continued to mop up flames and keep an eye out for hot spots.

Capt. Justin Loffredo of the Lakeside Fire District in San Diego County said the Chimney Fire was his first of the season. Loffredo, who’s in his 24th year as a firefighter, said it’s not easy being away from his kids, but he knows the public is grateful for his and other firefighters’ work.

“Out in the middle of nowhere, there’s a sign thanking us for what we do,” Loffredo said.

Although Loffredo said he enjoyed getting to see the best nature the state has to offer, he’ll be happy to go home and run the school carpool once the fire is under control.

“I come off work and I have to do the real work,” he laughed.

Staff writer Kathe Tanner contributed to this story.