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Day 12: Chimney Fire takes toll on weary firefighters, residents

Saving Oak Shores

Cal Fire crews mop up hot spots along the hilly Oak Shores Road area on Wednesday after the Chimney Fire scorched the area earlier in the week
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Cal Fire crews mop up hot spots along the hilly Oak Shores Road area on Wednesday after the Chimney Fire scorched the area earlier in the week

The 12-day fight to contain the tenacious Chimney Fire — which grew by another 1,000 acres Wednesday to total 41,675 acres — began to take its toll on many this week.

Near San Simeon, tense residents waited in anticipation for possible evacuation orders as flames from back-burning operations could be seen in parts of the coastal town. In Oak Shores, on the north side of Lake Nacimiento, a battle raged throughout the night to protect the community from flames practically licking at its gates. And the nearly 4,000 weary firefighters working the blaze bemoaned time away from their families.

Then there are the many hundreds of evacuees from communities surrounding Lake Nacimiento anxiously waiting to return home.

Even Cal Fire officials noted the difficulty in battling a fire that began the afternoon of Aug. 13 and has destroyed 48 homes and 20 outbuildings and has damaged eight more structures.

“It’s a marathon right now,” Cal Fire spokesman John Buchanan said Wednesday evening. “Some areas are a sprint, but for the larger fire as a whole, it’s a marathon.”

The Chimney Fire is now the second-largest wildfire burning in California, behind the month-old Soberanes Fire north of Big Sur that has scorched nearly 89,000 acres and is 60 percent contained.

As of 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Chimney Fire remained at 39 percent from early morning, with fire activity concentrated along its northern and southwestern edges.

The number of personnel fighting the blaze decreased slightly as some strike teams were sent home to rest and switch out with other crews.

Although the landmark Hearst Castle remains threatened, Cal Fire officials sounded confident that they have halted the fire 2 miles from the grounds of the century-old hilltop mansion built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst.

Buchanan said although the total number of homes destroyed rose to 48 Wednesday, the three new homes on the list probably burned in early days of the fire, but crews were just now able to access and report them.

Although the fire remained stable Wednesday, firefighters planned to focus on preparing affected areas — especially communities near the northeastern and southwestern edges of the blaze — for a Thursday “wind event,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Diley Greiser said.

“Tomorrow, it’s going to be a very, very important day,” Greiser said Wednesday evening.

Cal Fire investigators also declared Wednesday that the fire does not appear to have been intentionally set, although the exact cause remains unknown.

News conference

Politicians on Wednesday afternoon praised firefighters’ efforts during a news conference at the California Mid-State Fairgrounds in Paso Robles, but they offered no assurances that Chimney Fire victims would receive federal aid to help in any rebuilding.

Rep. Lois Capps, who represents San Luis Obispo County as part of the 24th Congressional District, county Supervisors Lynn Compton and Frank Mecham and county fire Chief Scott Jalbert discussed the state’s response to the fire.

Jalbert said California has been scorched by at least 300 more fires this year than last, fueled largely by vegetation made bone-dry by the ongoing drought.

“We’re seeing fire behavior we wouldn’t normally see in a season,” Jalbert said.

Capps agreed, saying the fire was no coincidence.

“We’re suffering one of the most significant droughts we’ve ever seen,” she said.

Capps called the blaze a disaster and praised the “organized coordination” among local, state and federal mutual aid. When asked whether residents who’ve lost their homes to the fire would be eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, Capps said those resources are “under study.”

Ron Alsop, county emergency services manager, said gaining access to areas affected by the fire would be the first step toward helping residents receive aid of any kind. Officials will need to wait until they’re allowed to visit evacuated areas before they can begin to assess the damage, he said.

“We need to know exactly what we have, so we can share that with the state,” Alsop said.

California doesn’t provide disaster aid, Alsop said, but the state would distribute information about damage in wildfire areas to the federal agencies responsible for allocating funds. Even so, the Chimney Fire might not do enough damage to make residents eligible for relief, he said.

“FEMA has pretty high thresholds for what they consider a disaster,” Alsop said.

The U.S. Small Business Administration also gives low-interest, long-term loans to individuals and businesses affected by a federally declared disaster. But an area is eligible for those loans only if 25 uninsured homes lose 40 percent of their value because of damage, he said.

Gov. Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency in San Luis Obispo County on Aug. 15, making the area eligible for federal funds. But Alsop said that money was only to be used for direct firefighting, not resident relief.

Alsop said it could take a month to six weeks to determine what kind of aid for which residents may be eligible. In the meantime, those affected should first contact their insurance providers to check on their coverage, he said.

“The state can’t do anything until we get our initial damage estimate,” Alsop said.

It’s beneficial for officials to wait until the fire has done the bulk of its damage before sending reports to the state, Alsop said. He said it’s important to capture a good picture of how much destruction the fire has caused to ensure as many residents as possible receive aid.

“What we don’t want to do is do it too soon,” Alsop said.

Battle continues

Fire crews spent much of Wednesday rooting out hot spots where trees and plants were burned in the Chimney Fire, spraying them down in neighborhoods such as Oak Shores and Whisper Canyon on the north side of Lake Nacimiento.

The aftermath of raging flames that swept through the area between the lake and Interlake Road earlier this week left behind charred hillsides, smoldering branches and scorched ground within a few feet of homes.

Nine more homes were destroyed Tuesday by the fire in Lynch Canyon and Christmas Cove, with one home lost in Whisper Canyon off Smith Road, which is in Monterey County near Bradley.

But dozens of others were saved by the efforts of crews that bulldozed firelines, cleared away flammable vegetation with backfires and cleared out leaves.

At Whisper Canyon campground, 70-foot flames on Monday threatened to take out the camp’s retreat area of yurts, a playground, barn and nearby homes.

The camp was spared because of preparations made by fire crews in advance of the flames, as well as the conditions on that day, said Bill Breuklander, a battalion chief with the Ventura County Fire Department assigned to the zone.

“If the fire had hit us directly head on, all we would have been able to do is step back and watch it take out the structures and then wait to start fighting it,” Breuklander said. “But it hit from two sides and not all at once.”

Firefighters stayed on duty for a 28-hour stretch, Breuklander said, trying to save those structures, including a few hours of active firefighting and several hours, starting at 1 a.m., of creating fire lines.

The remains of the blaze show that the fire burned to within a few feet of a hilltop residence and caught the leaves of an oak tree towering over the home.

Another crew along Oak Shores Drive spent much of Wednesday on “mop up” duty, dousing smoldering ground to prevent any flare-ups. Firefighters assigned to the area were using about 2,000 gallons of water per day from the community’s hydrants.

Bill Condit, a fire engineer with the Santa Fe Springs Firefighters, said wind Wednesday was calm, but firefighters expect it to pick up Thursday, so wetting hot spots was critical to helping keep embers from flying to unburned grasses across the road.

Condit said he’s been working the Chimney Fire for about 10 days on 24-hour shifts, typically sleeping about seven hours in a cramped bunk at the California Mid-State Fairgrounds.

“I miss my family,” Condit said. “My teenage son is learning to drive and he said, ‘When are you coming home?’ We’re signed up for 21 days. I said, ‘Soon.’ It’s hard to be away from your family. But this is what we signed up for.”

Hearst Castle

The fire was still burning about 2 miles away from Hearst Castle most of Wednesday.

Cal Fire representatives said they didn’t expect the Castle to be at risk.

Lucas Spelman, a Cal Fire public information officer, said contingency crews were ready if the fire headed toward Hearst Castle, but the winds weren’t blowing the blaze in that direction Wednesday.

“We’re pretty confident it’s not going to be threatening the Castle, and we have a great plan in place if it does,” Spelman said.

Cal Fire spokesman Mark Beveridge said Wednesday evening that a lot of the fire activity to the north of the Castle was what firefighters call a “dirty burn,” where the flames scorch pockets of vegetation but leave others untouched.

This creates a danger of the fire returning and burning in the area again, Beveridge said.

To combat this, crews Wednesday were clearing as much vegetation as possible, though it’s a labor-intensive activity, especially in the rugged hills and canyons that comprise most of the burn area, he said.

To the south of the Castle, residents in the San Simeon Creek Road area waited out an evacuation warning issued Wednesday morning as a precaution while firefighters set back burns to create firelines. The San Simeon community was not in imminent danger, Cal Fire officials assured the public.

“People are going to be seeing flames,” spokeswoman Diley Greiser said. “They don’t need to be scared.”

The operations actually began Tuesday afternoon, but crews burned only a section of the planned area because some spot fires jumped the containment line.

Though there was no apparent threat to the community, Beveridge did encourage residents to be prepared in the event the warning becomes an evacuation order.

“Highway 1 is a two-lane road,” he said. “So whatever that means to you, think of that if it comes to evacuations.”

Lindsey Holden, Janet Lavelle, Kaytlyn Leslie and Nick Wilson contributed to this report.

Chimney Fire as of 7 p.m. Wednesday

  • 41,675 acres, 39 percent contained
  • 3,972 firefighting personnel; 1 firefighter injured
  • 68 structures destroyed (48 homes, 20 outbuildings); 8 damaged
  • 1,898 structures threatened
  • Evacuations ordered for Christmas Cove, Oak Shores, North Shore Boat and Ski, Laguna Vista, South Shore Village, Cal Shasta, Ranchos del Lago, Sapaqua Valley, Bee Rock, Lake San Antonio and Bryson Hesperia areas
  • Evacuation warnings for north of San Simeon Creek Road, including those living on Van Gordon Creek, Keystone Mine and Red Mountain roads
  • Road closures: G14 Interlake Road from Lake Nacimiento Dam to Bryson Hesperia Road. Traffic control manned by CHP at Interlake Road at Bryson Hesperia Road and Interlake Road at Lake Nacimiento.
  • Waterway closure: Las Tablas arm of Lake Nacimiento closed to all boats
  • 327 fire engines
  • 105 hand crews
  • 7 air tankers
  • 16 helicopters
  • 46 dozers
  • 59 water tenders
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