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Day 10: Chimney Fire burns more homes near Lake Nacimiento

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.

The Chimney Fire took another turn Monday afternoon, sending flames blazing into at least one lakeside community — South Shore Village — while licking at the gates of another — Oak Shores.

After crossing into Monterey County early Monday, the Chimney Fire seemed to head north on Day 10, with less danger posed to the Lake Nacimiento communities that have tensely waited for days to learn whether their lakeside homes would be in the path of the flames.

That changed Monday afternoon as flames jumped back toward the evacuated communities, burning at least two homes and two outbuildings.

Meanwhile, the threat to Hearst Castle, which at one point during the weekend seemed in imminent danger, has continued to ease, though officials announced tours would not resume at the historic property until the Chimney Fire was under control.

As of Monday at 7 p.m., the fire had burned 33,173 acres and destroyed 52 structures: 36 homes and 16 outbuildings. No additional structures were damaged. Nearly 1,900 structures remained threatened by the fire, which was 35 percent contained.

Evacuation orders were still in place for Christmas Cove, Oak Shores, South Shore Village, Cal Shasta, Ranchos del Lago, Bee Rock, Lake San Antonio and Bryson Hesperia areas. Interlake Road from the Lake Nacimiento Dam to Bryson Hesperia Road also was closed, with traffic control points being manned by the CHP.

Plan of attack

Cal Fire’s Monday plan for attacking the Chimney Fire was similar to its plans Sunday, spokeswoman Diley Greiser said: “Get as many boots on the ground as possible.”

Greiser said there were several strike teams in place at Oak Shores, Christmas Cove and Bryson on Monday to protect the numerous homes in the area, as well as teams looking to curb the fire’s northern spread into Monterey County.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of firefighters working in those areas right now,” she said.

For most of Monday, a heavy inversion layer helped keep the fire under control, but sometime after 3 p.m. that inversion layer “popped” according to Cal Fire spokesman John Buchanan, sending a rush of heat into the area and fanning the flames along the lake’s western edge.

That action seems to have been centered largely around the South Shore Village area, a small gated community at the westernmost point of Lake Nacimiento before “The Narrows” — the thin, tail-like offshoot of the lake. It was one of the first communities evacuated at the start of the Chimney Fire.

As of Monday evening, two homes and two outbuildings had burned in the area.

Amid reports that fire activity was picking up in several of the other areas evacuated because of the Chimney Fire, Oak Shores general manager Dennis Javens said it was quiet — albeit smoky — at the lakeside community late Monday afternoon.

“I was just out in the community, no damage and the place is just smoked in,” Javens said. “We have fire crews and people cutting down dead trees all over the place. Oak Shores will survive, God willing.”

That changed by Monday evening, when several reports came in that structures in Oak Shores were threatened and spot fires were popping up around the north shore community. As of 6 p.m., Oak Shores representatives said the fire was stopped at the community’s private gate with firefighters holding the flames back. No structures had burned at that time.

Evacuation troubles

Another of Monday’s ongoing struggles was the fight to get residents in the path of the fire to evacuate.

According to Greiser, several residents within the evacuation areas refused to leave and are instead staying in their homes, “waiting out the fire.”

“Not only are they putting themselves in harm’s way by staying in the path of the fire, but also they are getting in the way of firefighting operations,” she said Monday morning.

Greiser said those who refuse to evacuate potentially endanger all of the firefighting operations, by making it difficult to use specific equipment and procedures that could combat the blazes, as well as by pulling personnel away from managing the flames and forcing them to have to spend more time evacuating those residents.

Tony Cipolla, spokesman for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies have been working since the start of the evacuations to communicate with residents who chose to stay on their properties.

“Anytime there’s been a wildland fire, the Sheriff’s Office experiences a few folks who refuse to leave their property after an evacuation order is given,” Cipolla wrote in an email to The Tribune. “The same is true of the Chimney Fire since it started. Since the Sheriff’s Office cannot legally force people to leave their place of residence, deputies make sure to document their refusal. This way, deputies note their refusal and can move on to the next house.”

Cipolla said the residents are encouraged to evacuate and are reminded that if they stay, there could come a time when authorities are unable to help them if the fire were to reach their homes or trap them in an area.

Cipolla did not know the number of residents who had refused to leave their homes as of Monday.

Animal rescue services such as the Horse Emergency Evacuation Team also were having trouble on Monday getting into some of the evacuated areas to transport animals out.

HEET President Susan McElhinney said the closure of several major roads like Interlake Road near Lake Nacimiento, as well as the erratic nature of the large fire, has made it difficult to evacuate animals that have been left behind.

“I feel like I wish I could do more, but there’s only so much we can do,” she said. “We can’t risk going in and getting burned in there, as well.”

McElhinney said that though her group has received several calls to help evacuate animals, they have only been able to assist in evacuating a handful. Sometimes the issue is that the group can’t get out to a site before a road closes because of how big the fire is, and then officials might not let them in, depending on the status of firefighting operations in that location, she said.

Another issue compounding the troubles is that it is difficult to get a big-rig large enough to transport larger livestock into many of the evacuated areas because of the smaller rural roads, she said.

Though they cannot reach every animal, McElhinney said her group is still taking calls for animal evacuations and will do everything in their power to get accessible animals out.

HEET can be reached at 805-466-7457.

Tours canceled as Hearst Castle threat eases

Though it was one of the primary areas of concern for firefighting officials throughout the weekend, the threat on Hearst Castle continued to ease Monday.

“It’s looked exactly the same the past two days,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Amber Anderson said Monday evening, noting that the majority of the fire activity appears to be heading northeast, away from the Castle.

Despite the reduced threat, tours at Hearst Castle have been shut down through at least Sunday, to coincide with Cal Fire’s expected containment date.

Dan Falat, superintendent of the State Parks district that includes Hearst Castle, said several factors played into his decision to shut down Castle tours this week.

“There’s way too much traffic on the hilltop right now,” he said in a phone interview Monday afternoon, with firefighter staging areas on the hilltop and on the surrounding Hearst Ranch, where the firefight is being waged.

“The fire is still active, the situation is fluid, and then to add tour buses on the road … we have to focus on protection of the structure and the collection” and the park’s responsibility to “help support the firefighting efforts to get this thing contained and out so we’re done with it,” he said.

“We need to give our visitors a realistic approach,” Falat said. “I hate to stop and start, stop and start the tours, two days at a time.”

That’s too hard on visitors waiting to find out whether their scheduled tours are going to happen, he explained.

“They have to make plans, too,” he said.

Ticket fees are being refunded during the closure.

Falat said he didn’t yet have a financial projection of how much lost revenue there will be from having the Castle closed for a week near the end of the summer visitation season.

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