Imagine receiving an urgent order to evacuate from your home during a wildfire. Flames burn on the side of a single-access road, and fire engines are trying to get in as your neighbors are trying to get out.
Or even worse, imagine watching as your home burns.
It could happen on the North Coast.
In fact, it has. Just ask people like Susan McDonald and J.R. “Doc” Miller about their experiences in the Chimney Fire, almost exactly two years ago.
Now, as huge, catastrophic fires blast flames and burning embers across communities in California and the Western U.S., the chance of a large wildfire on the Central Coast is greater than normal this year due to high temperatures and low moisture levels .
Some of those fires were so intense, fast and forceful that they jumped what should have served as natural or created fire breaks, including six-lane freeways and major rivers.
Local officials and area residents are taking aggressive action to make safer areas at risk of wildfire. In fact, the county’s Fire Safe Council just received $1.8 million in grant money to be spent in Cambria’s forest, part of a $3.9 million grant for countywide efforts.
Residents can help, too, by signing up for and preparing for a free chipping event in mid-September. That’s also when Cambria evacuation information is to be included in services district bills.
San Luis Obispo County is known for its rural open spaces and coastal mountain range, but that also makes homes within those areas more vulnerable to wildfires — particularly during a fire season that’s expected to remain robust at least through the fall.
Recent reports show San Luis Obispo County is in a California region where there’s a greater than usual chance of a significant wildfire this year, and one-third of the homes are at extreme to high risk of wildfire damage.
An analysis by insurance data provider Verisk Analytics shows that more than 38,000 homes in this county — 33 percent of the total homes in the county — are at risk of being damaged or destroyed by fire.
That’s more than double the statewide average.
Three factors determine the risk in a specific area: How close a property is to forests, shrubs and trees; whether it’s near hilly or mountainous terrain; and whether it’s in a location that’s isolated and hard to reach.
Wildfire tragedies can shatter entire communities, but the most painful effects are felt one home, one business, one life at a time.
Miller knows. His 1,100-square-foot North Coast cabin was destroyed by the 2016 Chimney Fire.
The cabin was about 16 miles from Highway 1. He said it takes about an hour to navigate the rugged, rural drive to that eastern slope of Pine Mountain behind Hearst Castle.
He has rebuilt, and “I’m back and I’m happy,” Miller said Aug. 20, the two-year anniversary of the day his house burned.
His new home on his hillside property is a tiny house of 192 square feet.
“It’s easy to keep clean, it’s comfortable and sound,” he said. “I really did downsize.”
He said it has an added advantage of “freedom from stuff.” He already knows the pain of losing what you have.
Getting the official notice to evacuate to avoid a wildfire also is a nerve-rattling, individual experience.
Some North Coast residents know all too well what it feels like to get that knock on the door, phone call or text telling them it’s time to get out because a wildfire could be heading their way. They remember the angst-and-fear-filled days of the Chimney Fire, when the monster blaze was bearing down on San Simeon Creek Road and within a couple of miles of Hearst Castle.
“Even though the Chimney Fire had been burning for days in the mountains above our house, getting that ‘evacuation order’ on the phone and later in person from Cal Fire was a shock,” San Simeon Creek Road resident Susan McDonald said. “It made the prospect of losing our home very real.
They had moved family photos and artwork and livestock off the property, but still, getting the evacuation order was “chilling,” he said.
“My husband built our house. We were living our dream next to San Simeon Creek surrounded by the oaks and sycamores and bay trees we loved,” she said.
With the fire threat they knew that, “at any moment, we could be homeless along with the birds, deer, foxes and other creatures who shared the land with us.”
Fortunately, firefighters were able to stop the fire before it got that far, but painful memories linger about the threat and their close call.
“We left feeling numb,” she said of evacuating. “We returned giddy with relief a week later when the danger had passed.”
And the threat remains.
“This year, now with the first whiff of fall in the air, a dormant anxiety is messing with my sleep,” she said. “Do I smell smoke? Could it be happening again?”
‘Projects all over the county’
When escape is possible, evacuating probably will take longer and be more crowded and difficult than most people expect.
That’s especially true in Cambria, with its heavily forested hills, curving and narrow roads and some neighborhoods that literally have only one way in or out.
Evacuating during a wildfire is “confusing, it’s highly emotional, people aren’t always thinking and maybe they’re driving too fast,” said Ted Mathiesen, a Cal Fire defensive space inspector. “We don’t want to have an incident within an incident. We want to get everybody out and evacuate and be able to access the fire safely.”
North Coast evacuees’ problems may not be over even after they’ve made their way onto Highway 1. That point was driven home during a small July 29 roadside grass fire triggered by a burning car. Traffic control at the fire site caused a backup of vehicles of as much as 7 miles for more than an hour as fire crews quenched the blaze and cleared the scene.
Cambria’s worrisome wildfire risk and potential evacuation bottlenecks concern residents, property owners and the officials who have been seeking — and getting — grant money to help pay for work that could make emergency departures safer and reduce the risk of roadside fires.
The all-volunteer county FireSafe Council was recently awarded the largest fire prevention grant it’s ever received for $3.9 million.
Of that money, $1.8 million is to be spent on the rare native Monterey pine forest in Cambria and San Simeon. It’s estimated that up to 70 percent of that forest is dead from the onslaught of drought and bark beetles. The funds will allow work crews to continue a project already underway to build new fuel breaks and tidy up existing ones, remove some dead trees and leave standing, live, healthy trees in place.
“We’re doing projects all over the county,” said Dan Turner, business manager of the all-volunteer San Luis Obispo County Fire Safe Council, a 27-member group which administers the projects.
The rest of the grant funds will be used near Lake Nacimiento, east of Santa Margarita and in Los Osos, Avila Beach, Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, Ranchita Estates and San Luis Obispo.
“If we can prevent the fire from occurring, that’s the ultimate goal. That costs nothing, no damage, nobody’s displaced,” Turner said. “The next step is (with) those you can’t or don’t prevent, (to) mitigate the consequences of fire so it’s not as damaging.”
Turner also is the co-founder of, and regular participant in, the Cambria FireSafe Focus Group, an offshoot of the council. (Former county supervisor Shirley Bianchi was his cofounder.) The focus group works to educate the public and assist council efforts toward making Cambria and Cambrians safer.
Turner, former county planning commissioner Ken Topping and Michael Walsh, the Focus Group’s representative to the council, are among those seeking future grants and other ways to help make Cambria and the North Coast more prepared for and protected against wildfire.
The goal of the prevention and preparation work is twofold: to reduce fuel for fire and to increase the width of the road so there’s a better chance that everyone can get out safely, and firefighters can get in safely, if a fire does erupt.
The work is funded with grants from PG&E and the California Climate Investment Program, including money from the state’s cap-and-trade program.
Residents are thankful
Nearby residents who’ve anxiously watched the sky fill with smoke from fires closeby are grateful the work is underway.
On Aug. 8, Cambria resident Patty Fox stopped to thank a crew working to clear one primary escape route in the town.
The Mexican and Honduran men working in the country on H2B visas were removing French broom intermingled with poison oak alongside Cambria Pines Road on the northern edge of town.
Hundreds of residents, many of them retired seniors, rely on that one road for access to Highway 1.
Clearing the dense foliage with hand tools and chainsaws is expected to widen the road opening by about 30 feet. Unless there is a crown fire in the forest canopy or a downed tree, the road should be clear for evacuation.
“We’re very happy to see this,” Fox said. “Because of the condition of the forest and the fire danger, a lot of the residents are nervous. To see something like this makes me feel safer.”