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Day 8: Chimney Fire bears down on Hearst Castle; some Lake Nacimiento areas evacuated

Chimney Fire threatens Hearst Castle

The Chimney Fire grew to 19,909 acres Saturday, and flames inched closer to historic Hearst Castle. Fire crews attempted to stop the encroaching blaze as it crept to within a few miles of the iconic landmark.
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The Chimney Fire grew to 19,909 acres Saturday, and flames inched closer to historic Hearst Castle. Fire crews attempted to stop the encroaching blaze as it crept to within a few miles of the iconic landmark.

Update, 11:30 p.m.

Fire crews attempting to halt the progress of the Chimney Fire near Lake Nacimiento are “utilizing every resource we have” to establish and keep containment lines, a Cal Fire spokesman said.

Battalion Chief Richard Brocchini said fire crews were working in “challenging territory” as the blaze continued to burn in rugged, dry terrain late Saturday night.

“Typically, at night time, fires will lay down in these respective areas,” he said.

Relatively higher humidity levels at night often help firefighting efforts, Brocchini said — but he cautioned that the Chimney Fire remained “dynamic.”

“It’s still pretty challenging” he said. “We obviously take advantage every time we can, or when mother nature allows us to.”

The Chimney Fire has burned 19,909 acres and was 35 percent contained as of Saturday evening, according to Cal Fire.

Flames came within 3 miles of historic Hearst Castle, which closed to the public as a precaution.

Evacuation orders remained in effect for Christmas Cove, Oak Shores, Bryson Hesperia, Cal Shasta, Ranchos del Lago and South Shore Village, Cal Fire said late Saturday night.

Update, 10:15 p.m.

Cal Fire has issued a news release on updated road closures and evacuation orders.

Evacuation orders remain for Christmas Cove, Oak Shores, Bryson Hesperia, Cal Shasta, Ranchos del Lago and South Shore Village, according to Cal Fire.

Hard road closures are set at Gage Irving Road north of Allen Road, which affects the communities of Cal Shasta, Ranchos del Lago and South Shore Village, Cal Fire announced via Twitter.

For the Bryson Hesperia community in Monterey County, traffic is closed west of road G14 (Tierra Redonda) on Lynch Canyon Road, according to Cal Fire.

Cal Fire is advising those who are fleeing to take any pets, medication and family valuables with them. When residents leave their homes, they should close all windows and leave all doors closed and unlocked, Cal Fire said.

Original story:

Mercurial, wind-driven flames expanded the Chimney Fire to 19,909 acres on Saturday, challenging 2,909 firefighters on two fronts as the blaze threatened Hearst Castle to the west and then doubled back to threaten neighborhoods to the east, clustered around Lake Nacimiento.

Containment was 35 percent as of 7 p.m.

The flames drove relentlessly westward overnight Friday and into Saturday, bringing the fire within 3 miles of the Castle. Air tankers and helicopters bombarded the ground with water and retardant all day Saturday in an effort to protect the hilltop State Parks landmark, which was closed to visitors indefinitely. Dozens of firefighters and at least six engines were stationed at the mansion throughout the day.

Then the wind shifted Saturday, blowing to the northeast and reigniting worries that the fire’s eastern edge would once again flare up and spread back to Lake Nacimiento, where fire activity had lessened during the week and firefighters had begun mopping up and watching for hotspots.

Evacuation Centers Flamson Middle School, 2405 Spring Street, Paso Robles Small animals: SLO County Animal Services, 855 Oklahoma Ave., San Luis Obispo Large animals: Horse Emergency Evacuation Team, 805-466-7457

Instead, the shifting winds prompted new evacuation orders Saturday afternoon for two communities on the east side of the burn area near Lake Nacimiento — Oak Shores and Christmas Cove, which are nestled against the north side of the lake. Farther north, evacuations also were ordered for Bryson Hesperia in Monterey County.

On the south shore of Lake Nacimiento, an evacuation order that had been in place since the fire started on Aug. 13 was briefly lifted Saturday — and then reinstated by evening for the gated communities of Cal Shasta, Ranchos del Lago and South Shore Village on the south shore of Lake Nacimiento. Residents in the south shore communities of Running Deer Ranch and Tri-Counties were allowed to return home.

The Red Cross reopened an emergency shelter at George H. Flamson Middle School in Paso Robles late Saturday afternoon. The shelter doesn’t take pets, so a small animal evacuation center was set up at the San Luis Obispo County Animal Services Center.

Firefighters had spent several days trying to prevent the fire from moving westward over the rugged Rocky Butte Ridge area, where battling the inferno in steep, isolated canyons and hillsides would be a major challenge. That effort ultimately failed overnight Friday and into Saturday morning, when winds shifted and drove flames in that direction.

“The fire was active overnight, causing it to crest Rocky Butte Ridge,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Emily Hjortstorp said. “On Saturday, it wasn’t expanding a lot to the west. The wind shifted and was blowing from the west to the north and northeast. And when a fire is this large, it also creates its own wind.”

Hearst Castle

On Saturday, Hearst Castle and its grounds were closed to visitors indefinitely, although the Hearst Castle Visitor Center, which is downhill from the Castle and several miles west, remained open.

Worried residents in the coastal communities of San Simeon and Cambria were assured that they were safe.

On Saturday afternoon, Cal Fire spokeswoman Amber Anderson said even if flames breached the Hearst Ranch area, firefighters would be able to keep the Castle itself and its artifacts safe.

“We’re fairly confident we can keep (the fire) away from the Castle,” she said.

The hilltop Hearst Castle, a historic landmark that is now part of the California State Parks system, was designed by architect Julia Morgan for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and construction began in 1919. In its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, the Castle was a magnet for Hollywood stars.

Flames from the Chimney Fire crept toward Hearst Castle on Saturday as fire crews attempted to halt the progress of the blaze. Hearst Castle was closed to tours Saturday, and staff began preparations to evacuate animals as a precaution.

Castle personnel have been working since Tuesday to prepare in the event the fire reached the grounds, said Dan Falat, State Parks district superintendent. Groundskeepers and fire staffers had been working to put in fire lines and cut back some landscaping to create a defensible space around the historic State Parks monument.

There are contingency plans for moving some of the vast, 25,000-piece collection of artwork and artifacts “if it becomes absolutely necessary.” Even so, some pieces would be impossible to move, given constraints of size, weight, placement and fragility, he said.

The plan is to shelter the artwork in place, he said. That may change if the fire breaches containment lines.

Falat said Hearst and Morgan worked for decades to make the Castle a reality and absolutely knew they were creating the massive estate “in fire country, they were well aware of that,” and they made sure it was ready to defend against wildfire.

Plans change

Down the hill from the Castle, near the visitors center, disappointed tourists hoping to see the museum and grounds tried to figure out their next moves Saturday afternoon.

Ramon Gonzalez, his wife, Julia, and their children, Hailey and Aime, came from Los Angeles to check out the Central Coast. Patty Carcini, her husband, Luis, and their children, Natalia and Sofia, hail from Mexico City.

The families said they were “very sad” at learning of the Castle’s closure, and hoped to come back Sunday.

In a parking lot near the visitors center, a group of locals gathered to watch the flames and helicopter and air tanker activity. Some even brought lawn chairs and a police scanner to keep abreast of the action.

Cambria resident Susan Einung said she could see smoke from her home but had come to get a different view of the fire.

“It’s pretty scary,” she said. “Cambria’s such a tinderbox.”

Looking at the Castle on the hill above and admiring its beauty amid the clouds of smoke, Einung said there’s a reason people are so concerned about the fire’s proximity to the structure.

“That’s why this is so threatening and awesome,” she said. “Because it’s such a treasure.”

Protecting the ranch

At the adjacent 82,000-acre private Hearst Ranch, the plan was for the ranch to bring in one of its own helicopters with a cowboy familiar with cattle behavior to herd any cattle down to the flatland from up on the ranch ridges, said Stephen Hearst, family heir and ranch corporation vice president.

With the cattle moved, the ridges would be open for Cal Fire drops of retardant and water, he said.

The property is also home to a herd of zebra, a legacy from the original zoo set up by William Randolph Hearst. Stephen Hearst said the zebra were mostly down in the flatlands already.

Also a concern was an old metal piping system that carries water from the ranch reservoir to the Castle. The aging pipes are supported by vulnerable wooden stanchions. At last report, “the pipe still had water in it,” Hearst said, “but we don’t know if that’s from the reservoir or it’s just water that was in the pipe.”

Hearst said he had closed the ranch airstrip to private craft and opened it up to Cal Fire. About 300 firefighters were at the ranch on Saturday, he said as the fire moved down Pine Mountain.

“There have been heroic efforts around the clock,” he said, referring to Cal Fire and Hearst’s own staffers. “This fire is hungry. And there’s plenty of food for it.”

Ranch staff had been preparing for the fire for days, Hearst said, but still suffered losses in its backcountry, including the Fishburn cabin and damage to a family residence.

“There have been some tears flowing over this,” he said. “We’re prepared to defend everything we’ve got with everything we’ve got. You do the best you can with what you have. It all depends on the wind.”

Staff writers Lindsey Holden, Janet Lavelle, Kathe Tanner and Kaytlyn Leslie contributed to this story.

Chimney Fire stats: 7 p.m. Saturday

  • 19,909 acres, 35 percent contained
  • 2,909 firefighting personnel
  • 48 structures destroyed; 7 more damaged
  • Evacuations ordered: Oak Shores, Christmas Cove, Cal Shasta, Ranchos del Lago, South Shore Village and Bryson Hesperia near Lake San Antonio
  • Evacuations lifted: Running Deer Ranch and Tri-Counties
  • 219 fire engines
  • 76 fire crews
  • 7 air tankers
  • 14 helicopters
  • 47 dozers
  • 45 water tenders
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