Day 9: Threat to Hearst Castle lessens even as Chimney Fire grows to 27,546 acres

How fire crews on the ground are fighting the Chimney Fire

Several miles from the Hearst Castle in the rolling oak-studded hills north of Lake Nacimiento, fire crews prepared to head off a northern advance of the flames from the Chimney Fire.
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Several miles from the Hearst Castle in the rolling oak-studded hills north of Lake Nacimiento, fire crews prepared to head off a northern advance of the flames from the Chimney Fire.

A welcome coastal marine layer and little wind gave firefighters some traction Sunday in their continued assault of the Chimney Fire near Lake Nacimiento, with the flames stymied 3 miles from the famed Hearst Castle and no new homes damaged or destroyed.

Still, the fire continued to spread north toward Monterey County and grew by about 3,500 acres during the day to total 27,546 acres by nightfall. Containment also grew, however, to 35 percent. Cal Fire spokeswoman Amber Anderson declared Sunday a good day without the changeable winds that had plagued firefighting efforts over the past nine days.

Chimney Fire stats: 7 a.m. Sunday 24,096 acres, 35 percent contained 2,699 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 218 fire engines 71 fire crews 7 air tankers 14 helicopters 50 dozers 35 water tenders

“Today has been a very successful day,” she said. “There have been no major changes. It’s just a matter of continuing fighting the fire.”

Although the coastal areas benefited from a marine layer, with temperatures in the 70s and humidity at 50 percent, hot weather persisted inland with temperatures remaining in the 90s. That caused “extreme and erratic fire behavior” along Rocky Butte Truck Trail and allowed the fire to continue to surge north and east toward San Antonio Reservoir in Monterey County.

Evacuation Centers Flamson Middle School, 2405 Spring Street, Paso Robles. Small/large animals: Information on area boarding facilities. 805-423-4934 Large animals: Horse Emergency Evacuation Team. 805-466-7457

Evacuation orders issued Saturday remained in place Sunday night for the communities of Cal Shasta, Ranchos del Lago and South Shore Village on the south side of Lake Nacimiento and Christmas Cove, Oak Shores and Bryson Hesperia north of the lake. Evacuation orders were added Sunday night for Bee Rock and homes along Interlake Road west of the Lake Nacimiento Dam.

Cal Fire has increased the number of threatened homes to 1,032 to account for all of the evacuated areas. With no new structures falling victim to the blaze Sunday, the tally remains at 34 homes and 14 outbuildings destroyed and seven structures damaged.

An American Red Cross emergency shelter remained open at George H. Flamson Middle School in Paso Robles, where about 25 people spent the night Saturday. The shelter is expected to be open as long as necessary, offering food, showers and a welcoming place to spend the night.

Sunday, Aug. 21, update on the Chimney Fire burning in San Luis Obispo County.

Although the winds that have been driving the fire for much of the week didn’t kick up Sunday, the coastal marine layer that hovered over the western burn area was both a help and a hindrance, Anderson said. While the still, moist air was welcome, it also trapped the smoke and reduced visibility so that retardant-dropping air tankers were hampered in their ability to fly. Helicopters still shuttled back and forth, continually dropping water on the flames.

“Visibility was a big issue over most of the fire today,” Anderson said.

Although firefighters were able to stop the fire’s march toward Hearst Castle, the flames did continue their drive north along the northwest shore of Lake Nacimiento.

“The most active area is where the fire crossed the ‘narrows’ at the west side of the lake and pushed north,” she said.

At Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle was closed to tours again Sunday and will remain closed Monday, though the Visitor Center to the historic State Parks landmark would be open, District Superintendent Dan Falat said.

The Castle was offering free showings Sunday of its film, “Hearst Castle — Building the Dream,” which tells the story of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and his partnership with architect Julia Morgan to build the hilltop mansion that, nearly a century later, fire crews have been battling to protect.

While visitors continued to wander in and out of the center, dozens of fire trucks were parked in the Hearst Castle Visitor Center lot and up the hill on the grounds of the Castle. About 400 of the 3,500 firefighters working the Chimney Fire were in the Castle area to prevent flames from spreading west toward the hilltop mansion and beyond to scenic Highway 1.

Firefighters scouted hills and canyons to burn away brush, grass and other vegetation to secure a containment line about 2 miles east of the Castle. The hilltops were blanketed in hot-pink retardant dropped by air tankers.

The visitors center parking lot and Hearst Castle grounds and roads are being used as staging areas for Cal Fire personnel and equipment as crew fight the Chimney Fire, which is burning just a few miles from the historic landmark.

During the afternoon, two state parks firefighter-security officers took their lunch break on the hill, cooled by the heavy marine layer.

Cindie Riley, who’s served in the area for 17 years, and Ron DeLuca, who’s served for 18, said their job is to use their knowledge of the grounds to provide information to fire crews moving equipment and staging there.

Riley and DeLuca said they’d never seen flames get this close to the structure, but they didn’t think the Castle would see any damage. Hearst Castle is home to the only State Parks fire department because of “the value of the structure,” Riley said.

“It’s an honor to have the responsibility to protect something that’s as amazing as Hearst Castle,” she said.

Nearby, firefighters from the Central Valley used maps and radios to help ground crew members scout out the nearby hills and canyons.

Alex Battistoni of Golden Empire Crew 10 said he was helping to prepare the roads that cut through the terrain below for contingency fire lines.

“Just another day,” Battistoni said of staging operations at the Castle. “We don’t really think about it.”

Grayson Vibe, a seasonal firefighter for the Kern County Fire Department, said he came to help fight the Chimney Fire from the Mineral Fire near Fresno.

“It’s kind of neat,” Vibe said of visiting the Castle for the first time. “We’re from the Central Valley, so seeing the coast is always cool.”

Stephen Hearst, family heir and vice president of the Hearst Corp.’s western properties, estimated that about 8,000 acres of the 82,000-acre private Hearst Ranch land next to the State Park had burned by Sunday afternoon.

Hearst said that while he knows that “in five to 10 years, this probably will be a good benefit to the countryside,” because of regeneration and other benefits to wild land, “it’s pretty tough now on all of us.”

North of the lake

Several miles from the Castle in the rolling, oak-studded hills north of Lake Nacimiento, fire crews prepared to head off a northern advance of the flames.

At a staging area on Bryson Road, dozens of Cal Fire and firefighters gathered from municipal fire departments from as far away as South Pasadena and Arcadia.

A line of at least 25 fire engines and 30 firetrucks sat idling, its operators taking the opportunity to catch a few minutes of rest before their next orders came in. The firefighters said they were expecting the flames to come their way, though whether it would be hours or days away depended on the wind and other changing conditions.

At the end of a dirt road dotted with occasional homes — about 4 miles to the south and perhaps a mile north of the lake — a Cal Fire and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation inmate chainsaw team was clearing dead and dying trees on rural private property on Hesperia Road.

About 20 inmates manning chainsaws were downing large trees.

Cal Fire Capt. Don Covert, the strike team leader, said the goal was not to clear out all possible fuel, but to cut down tall trees in order to keep any fire that comes through the area lower to the ground to reduce its intensity.

By 3 p.m., winds had picked up slightly, sending a constant flow of ash raining down from the thick, smoke-filled sky.

Cal Fire Capt. Tami Martin, who was directing the inmate crew, barked orders over the sporadic buzzing of the chainsaws.

“That’s it! Pack it up, time to go,” she shouted as the small valley they were working in fell silent.

The crew had orders to respond to another area nearby and continue work there. Under the direction of Martin, the inmate crew, with their chainsaws and shovels slung over their shoulders, marched wearily in a single-file line back to the trucks before shipping off down the narrow unpaved roads to the next location.

Flamson shelter

On Sunday morning, about a dozen residents from the communities of Oak Shores and Christmas Cove waited at George H. Flamson Middle School in Paso Robles, where the San Luis Obispo chapter of the American Red Cross had set up a shelter.

Cindy Osgood, the Red Cross shelter supervisor, said the shelter served about 25 people total, providing bedding, toiletries, and food and water. The organization also has a nurse on staff and an official from San Luis Obispo County Mental Health Services on standby.

A day before the official start of the school year, one young girl marched into the Flamson auditorium with a pink backpack slung over her shoulder. The mood was somber and the auditorium eerily quiet. Osgood said some of the residents who have come and gone overnight were not at their homes when the evacuation order came in at about 6 p.m., and road closures prevented them from gathering belongings.

“It’s even more stressful for them,” Osgood said.

Scott and Kathi Miller, Ventura County residents who were evacuated from their Oak Shores vacation home Saturday, said their neighborhood has never experienced a serious fire in the 17 years they’ve owned the home.

“There’ve been little spot fires here and there, but nothing like this,” Scott Miller said. “We’ve never really had any concerns.”

As they sat in the school parking lot with their dog, Jack, they praised the work of Cal Fire officials and the Red Cross volunteers, who they said have “done a fine job” of keeping them informed.

Kathi Miller said they were at the neighborhood pool about 5 p.m. Saturday when a San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s deputy informed them that, while not mandatory at the time, it was a good idea to begin gathering their essential belongings in preparation.

About an hour later, the call went out.

“They weren’t subtle,” said Scott Miller, recalling deputies that went knocking door-to-door down their block.

The shelter will remain open this week even though the school year will start Monday at Flamson Middle School, said Ryan McMahon, Red Cross disaster program manager.

The shelter will be located in the school gym with the bathrooms and showers available to shelter clients. The Salvation Army and the Red Cross will be providing meals, McMahon said.

“We’re happy that even in the midst of the start of school, which is stressful, the Paso Robles school district has been absolutely fantastic,” he said. “We couldn’t ask for a better partner.”

Air quality

The smell of smoke has been more apparent throughout the county because of calm to light winds allowing the smoke to drift, PG&E meteorologist John Lindsey said.

Hazy skies are the result of stagnant smoke sitting at 15,000 to 17,000 feet, Lindsey said. He attributes this effect Sunday and Monday to a jet stream far north.

Beginning Thursday, Lindsey said he expects cooler temperatures to continue through Saturday, including a deep persistent marine layer and gentler more southerly winds headed toward the north.

Air quality around the county was moderate to good Sunday, according to Air Pollution Control District of San Luis Obispo County.

Moderate air quality is described as acceptable, with a potential moderate health concern for a small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.

Hazy skies and fine particulate concentrations are higher than normal as a result of transported smoke from the fires, according to an alert from the Air Pollution Control District of San Luis Obispo County.

Changing winds and fire conditions make it difficult to predict which areas of the county may be most affected, the alert said.

In the instance of smelling smoke or seeing ash fall, residents are encouraged to use common sense; county officials recommend that strenuous outdoor activity is avoided and people remain indoors as much as possible.

These precautions are especially important for people with existing respiratory illness and heart conditions and for the very young and the elderly, the alert said.

Staff writers Lindsey Holden, Matt Fountain, Danielle Ames, Kathe Tanner and Janet Lavelle contributed to this story.

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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