The Cambrian

Cambria hit by lightning storm, accompanied by rain

Lightning flashes beyond Morro Rock during a weekend storm that some said was the most severe thunderstorm they had seen on the Central Coast.
Lightning flashes beyond Morro Rock during a weekend storm that some said was the most severe thunderstorm they had seen on the Central Coast. Special to The Cambrian

Get much sleep early Sunday, July 19? 

Most people on the North Coast didn’t, as they watched, heard and felt what some have called the most intense and prolonged thunderstorm they’ve ever seen, with nearby lightning hits, crashing thunder claps and a few spot fires.

Fortunately, in this area of high fire danger, the rain in the rare July storm began about 20 minutes into Mother Nature’s vivid light-and-crash show on the North Coast, sometimes coming down in torrents. 

Rainfall amounts from the remnants of Pacific cyclone Dolores varied from place to place, even within neighborhoods. In Cambria, rain gauges recorded from less than an inch to slightly more than 1.5 inches of rain from the storm, which had mostly petered out by Monday — a day of hot, humid, tropical, monsoon-like weather.

During the storm, precipitation rates in San Luis Obispo County were setting records for July, according to John Lindsey, PG&E meteorologist. 

“This thing persisted for hours and hours and hours, which is pretty unique. You don’t see that anywhere in the U.S. We had literally thousands of lightning strikes” countywide.

Lindsey said long-range weather models call for monsoonal weather to become more common along the Central California Coast in coming years. 

Former county supervisor Shirley Bianchi said on Facebook, “I have been asking friends who are native Californians if they remember ever having a 24-hour thunder and lightning storm here, whatever the time of year. So far, none of us have. Not scientific data, for sure, but telling, none the less.”

Lindsey said PG&E reminds everyone that lightning kills an average of 49 people in the U.S. each year and injures hundreds more.

If thunder is heard, that area is within striking distance of the storm. There is no safe place outdoors when thunderstorms are in the area, he said.

Nancy Taylor of Cambria looked on the bright side in her Facebook posting Sunday: “Since we didn’t get fireworks for the fourth, here ya go, Cambria.”

By midday Tuesday, no storm damage had been reported to Cambria Community Services District infrastructure or at Hearst Castle and area state park units. The monument remained open Sunday, despite the looming storm threat throughout the day. 

Busy crews

Firefighters, electrical and other emergency crews didn’t sleep much either during the July 19 storm and the hours following it. By midmorning Sunday, Cambria Fire Department already had responded to five pole fires, two tree fires  and a chimney fire, according to the crew on duty. 

At press deadline, Cal Fire officials hadn’t yet calculated the number of North Coast calls during the storm, but a spokesman said Tuesday that between midnight and noon Sunday, their units responded to 90 calls countywide.

Power’s out

The same work crunch was affecting PG&E’s ability to collate storm stats, Lindsey said, but he estimated that more than 10,000 customers countywide were without electricity at some point during the storm. 

Lightning struck North Coast trees and power poles, and Lindsey estimated that more than 

200 North Coast PG&E customers had their electrical service interrupted during and after the storm. 

“The majority of outages were caused by lightning strikes to PG&E equipment, which could include transformers, poles, insulators and wires,” he said.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, he said 216 people remained without power in the county, including six Cambria accounts affected in four separate incidents. He expected to have power restored to those accounts by that evening.

Lindsey said that, with the volume of lightning strikes and other power interruptions, the utility had drawn in 40 extra crews to get customers back online. 

No drought relief

There was enough rain to make area gardeners gleeful, and perhaps raise water levels in local wells for a while, but the totals won’t have much effect on the drought and local fire danger, according to firefighters and services-district representatives.

“This is obviously not the end of the drought,” said Tom Gray, CCSD spokesman. 

Robert Lewin, fire chief for Cal Fire, San Luis Obispo County and Cambria Fire Department, said Tuesday, “The rain, while certainly welcomed by all of us, did not change the fact that we are in four-year drought. The accumulation of dead fuels in our forest and on our brush-covered lands remains, and because it is dead, it will not pull the moisture into its limbs. Within days after it dries out, it will be ready to burn again.”

Lewin continued, “With all the lightning, we are now concerned that there are ‘sleeper’ fires in some of the trees,” and “when they dry out, they will begin to burn freely. We will be deploying aircraft over the next couple of days to do detection of these types of fires where the lightning strikes occurred.” 

Fire management

While Cambria Fire’s department head, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Eric Shaloob, was on a vacation he’d planned long before he got his new assignment, North Coast crews had the situation here under control. According to Lewin, Cal Fire, which is providing interim management for a year for Cambria Fire, didn’t send a battalion chief to the area for “chief officer response.”

He explained that Cal Fire uses “a different model than a stand-alone fire chief. … We have a minimum of three battalion chiefs and a duty chief (division chief or higher) available every day to respond and manage emergencies. When a damaging storm, severe fire weather or large special events are predicted, we bring on additional personnel. Fortunately, we did not need to do that during this storm.”

Lewin added,  “Though we were very busy both in Cambria and elsewhere, our personnel were able to handle all the incidents without delay.”

He said the North Coast situation was similar to when recently retired Cambria Fire Chief Mark Miller was out of town, and “Cambria relied on the on-duty captain to be the acting chief while still covering the fire engine.”