It had already been a dreadful wildfire season in California when the Chimney Fire broke out at Lake Nacimiento about 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13.
By press deadline early Wednesday, Aug. 17, that fire had brought the nightmare specter of wildfire much too close for comfort for fire-fearful North Coast residents, especially those who live in the San Simeon Creek Road area or within the Cambria-San Simeon drought-parched native forest of aging Monterey pines and picturesque oaks.
The fierce Chimney Fire had blazed up from the lake — which is shaped a bit like a dragon — into the canyons, hills and ridges toward Rocky Butte, a large landmark that overlooks San Simeon and Cambria. The butte area also serves as a crucial communications hub for emergency and other services.
According to Cal Fire’s 7 a.m. incident update sheet Wednesday, Aug. 17, the raging inferno had consumed 7,300 acres and was 25 percent contained. Some of that containment line was at the lake’s convoluted central southern shoreline, spokesman Bennet Milloy said Tuesday.
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Residents were told to evacuate from the communities of Running Deer Ranch, Tri-County, Cal Shasta, Rancho de Lago and South Shore Village.
Milloy said late Tuesday that the fire was 2.5 miles from the Rocky Butte Truck Trail. That narrow trail, a cross between a rugged roadway and a goat path, is one ridge over from the butte itself, Milloy said. Cal Fire officials wanted to stop the Western spread of the fire east of the truck trail, he said, because that was where they felt the firefighters had the best chance of doing so.
Along San Simeon Creek Road and environs, residents packed essentials and treasured possessions in cars and trucks, and began transporting domestic, horses and other ranch animals off the hill. Others vowed to stay behind until they were told there was no other option but to leave. And the area “phone tree” was buzzing, as neighbors checked on neighbors.
You load the stuff up, and then you wait, and then you need something that you’ve loaded.
Shirley Bianchi, chairwoman of the Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group
Tuesday, Michele Oksen shuttled her animals, including 25 chickens, from her remote cabin to Gloria Fiscalini’s Cambria ranch. Suzy and Bob McDonald were poised to load their horses in the trailer they’d hooked up to the truck soon after the fire began.
Shirley and Bill Bianchi had loaded and unloaded their “go bags” and other possessions three times by midday Tuesday. As the chairwoman of the Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group said, “You load the stuff up, and then you wait, and then you need something that you’ve loaded.” However, “because of what we’d done ahead of time to prepare for evacuation, as the Focus Group recommends so strongly, we were ready to go quickly, and very calm.”
Officials closed San Simeon Creek Road on Tuesday to all but resident traffic, so there’d be room for large firefighting equipment and bulldozers to maneuver up to the top of the narrow, often steep and twisting rural road.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the blaze kept chewing up drought-dry grasses, brush, oak woodlands and other flammables, including 30 cabins and other homes and 10 outbuildings. Six other structures were damaged, and 232 were threatened.
On Monday, the governor declared San Luis Obispo County a disaster area because of the fire, and has declared other counties fire disasters as well. As of Wednesday morning, according to http://www.fire.ca.gov/current_incidents, nine major blazes were consuming California homes and property and sending thousands of people scrambling for their lives.
Cal Fire spokesman Bennet Milloy estimated that, as of 10:25 a.m. Wednesday, the fire’s Western front was about 1.5 miles from the intersection of Rocky Butte Truck Trail and the Town Creek Truck Trail. That intersection is behind Rocky Butte, on the east side of the ridgeline that leads to San Simeon Creek Road on the west side.
Milloy said the fire didn’t present as much on the west side as they had expected yesterday. Crews are widening/have widened the Rocky Butte Truck Trail with dozer lines, and a hand crew went in previously on the far northwest side.
Tuesday’s battle on the south side of the fire was fierce, he said, with 10-to-20-foot flames erupting from hip-high seasonal grasses. Shifting winds carried burning oak leaves into outlying areas, sparking spot fires to which crews had to shift their efforts to prevent further spread of the wildfire’s footprint.
Milloy said incident commanders and crews were expecting a “real fire fight” Wednesday, especially on the south side, near the Lime Mountain area. “Single-digit humidity, 8 or 9 percent, is at record levels. Energy-release component will be in the 90 to 95 percent level, which is incredible.”
That’s where it has been in some of the state’s most devastating fires, he said. “It’s going to be a tough day.”
Fog helped overnight, but especially the south-side battle continued fiercely until about 4 a.m.
Milloy said all the fire officials and crews are grateful that, so far, none of them or the public have been seriously injured. He said they’re also so grateful to volunteers who came to the command center to help, but that incident commanders say they didn’t need any more volunteer help as of Wednesday morning.
Smoke periodically blanketed San Simeon and Cambria, and frequently the rest of the county, as it had since July 23 when the Soberanes Fire north of Big Sur began. The smoke’s pungent stench (to be polite), according to Cal Fire officials, was due in part to creosote released when chaparral burns. And another piece of not-so-good news — wildfire smoke can also carry oil from burned poison oak.
When the air is smoky, people with chronic lung, heart or other medical conditions aggravated by smoke are encouraged to remain indoors and limit physical activity.
According to area historian Dawn Dunlap, some of the areas already torched and currently threatened by the Chimney Fire hadn’t burned since the Tobacco Creek Fire that began in July 1960. In eight days, that fire, which at one point had an 8-mile front line, consumed 50,500 acres (80 square miles, or about the size of Riverside).
The Tobacco Creek Fire came within one mile of Hearst Castle, according to Dunlap’s research. At that point, the fire was reportedly one of the biggest in the history of this county, Dunlap said. “It was a big deal, a really big deal.”
News reports then said the fire started on the Kelly Ranch on Waterdog Canyon in Monterey County, then moved south to Nacimiento Lake and west to Lime Mountain. On the fourth day of the fire, according to area property owner Walt Cole, who was stranded by the fire, “all hell broke loose” when winds shifted, got stronger and stayed that way.
Various mine buildings, cabins and homes were destroyed.
As of 7:15 a.m. Wednesday, the Soberanes Fire (caused by an illegal campfire) had blazed across 76,683 mostly rugged acres, and officials said the fire was 60 percent contained, with complete containment expected by the end of the month. Reportedly, 57 homes and 11 outbuildings had been destroyed, three more structures and two outbuildings were damaged.
State camping parks in the area were closed.
Highway 1 near Big Sur had been closed periodically for public safety and equipment-movement reasons. One closure was because a hazardous tree had to be removed before it landed on the highway.
Evacuation orders and warnings remained in place, including warnings on the east side of Highway 1 from Andrew Molera Park to Coast Ridge Road at the Ventana Inn, including the inn itself.
A contract dozer driver was killed while on the fire line, and three injuries were reported.