The Cambrian

North Coast holds breath, watches the hills for Chimney Fire

Smoke from the Chimney Fire rises from behind Hearst Castle, seen in the distance at upper left.
Smoke from the Chimney Fire rises from behind Hearst Castle, seen in the distance at upper left. Special to The Cambrian

The Chimney Fire started Saturday afternoon, Aug. 13, as a spot fire near Chimney Rock, Deer Trail and Running Deer roads, northwest of Paso Robles and south of Nacimiento Lake.

An ominous web posting then at http://hotlist.wildlandfire.com/threads requested “lots of resources, anticipating this will go big. My personal knowledge is this area is really hot and dry with lots of residences stuck in and around the wildlands.”

The firefighter’s prediction proved to be painfully accurate.

In fact, at The Cambrian’s press deadline about 9 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24, residents in some of Cambria’s rural areas received two emails. The first at about 8:30 a.m. was from the Sheriff’s Office, and it read: “This is the Sheriff's Office with an evacuation warning that has been issued for the following areas of San Simeon due to movement in fire activity from the Chimney Fire; evacuation warning for San Simeon Creek Rd, Van Gordon Creek Rd, Keystone Mine Rd, and Red Mountain Rd. Road closure has been issued for Van Gordon Creek Rd and San Simeon Creek Rd.”

The second, clarifying email came moments later from Cambria Fire Chief William Hollingsworth. It read, “Due to a spot fire that jumped the southwestern containment line last night, a prep-and-go warning has been issued to all residents along the upper portion of San Simeon Creek Road … this is not an evacuation order, preparation only. Incident Command is in good contact with the property owners.

“A significant amount of resources are being moved to the western edge of the fire to contain the spot fire. Cambria continues to NOT be threatened. However, for our residents in Cambria and outlying areas, please continue to be vigilant and prepared.”

That’s one reason why, as many people around the world were watching the 2016 Summer Olympics, most residents of the Central Coast stayed focused on wildfires: The Chimney Fire here, the huge Soberanes Fire north of Big Sur, and, later, the Rey Fire north of Santa Barbara.

Intermittently, choking smoke filled the usually fresh and fragrant North Coast air, often dropping ash, and confining smoke-vulnerable people inside for days.

By 7 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24, the Chimney Fire had relentlessly consumed 40,798 acres of land, 45 residences and 20 other structures and was threatening 1,898 others. More than 4,100 personnel were on the fire lines, feverishly protecting homes and property.

And it was still going.

Locations

The erratic wildfire had not only roared through various neighborhoods and areas around the craggy boundary of Lake Nacimiento, the fire had also blazed north and west over ridges and canyons to threaten Hearst Castle, Hearst Ranch lands, Rocky Butte and the crucial emergency communications hub there, and various inland properties in rural sections of the North Coast.

Then, on Monday, Aug. 22, the finicky fire and its mercurial, wind-driven flames headed back toward the lake area again, where fire cut through more neighborhoods, destroying homes and hopes.

And still the big blaze kept going, heading into Monterey County.

Most of the time, firefighters succeeded in their dogged battle, ridge by ridge, house by house, against daunting wildfire odds in terrain that was often ruggedly steep and clogged with brush, trees and other fire fuels that hadn’t burned since the Weferling Fire (also known as the Tobacco Creek Fire) in 1960.

There continues to be NO THREAT to Cambria. If there was even a minimal threat, we would let you know. The fire is in our direct line of sight and appears to be much closer than it actually is. Try not to worry!

Cambria Fire Department email

On the North Coast, time after time, over and over, helicopters and planes, from small to massive, dropped loads of water or bright-pink retardant that had been mixed at the Hearst Ranch airstrip. Hand crews and dozer operators created fire lines to stop the blaze. Sometimes, those lines held. Sometimes they didn’t. But, wherever they could, firefighters had established contingency lines a bit further away.

Back fires or “back burns” were set to try to outsmart the oncoming line of fire. In a back burn operation, crews identify an area where they believe they can control a prescribed burn, secure that area with containment lines and then set the fire to remove brush, trees and other flammables. Then, when and if the body of the main fire reaches that area, there’s no fuel left for it to burn. If the main fire doesn’t jump the containment line, that portion of the main fire would stop there.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle shut down its tour operations for one day, then another, then through Aug. 28, for public safety reasons and because there was so much emergency traffic on the steep, twisting, narrow access road from the visitor center to the hilltop mansion that’s a prized state park.

Dan Falat, superintendent of the state park district that includes the castle, said the closure period corresponds with Cal Fire’s projected containment date for the Chimney Fire: Monday, Aug. 29.

Closing the Castle until then seemed prudent, he said, from a public-and-staff safety standpoint, and so emergency crews streaming up and down the narrow access road from the Visitor Center to the hilltop wouldn’t be jockeying for space with tour buses, staff vehicles and other traffic. Also, the closure would allow visitors to make travel plans that would be less likely to be changed, again.

Contingency plans were laid to move artwork away from the fire, if that became necessary, but Falat said he and his staff were confident that the best thing to do was to shelter in place the castle’s vast collection of more than 25,000 pieces of art and artifacts. Some pieces would be impossible to move, given constraints of size, weight, placement and fragility, he said.

He said that estate owner/designer/builder William Randolph Hearst and his architect, Julia Morgan, were well aware that they were creating the massive estate in wildfire and earthquake country, and they made sure it was ready to defend against wildland blazes and quakes. For instance, the castle’s construction is concrete over steel-reinforced rebar.

By Wednesday, Aug. 24, fire officials seemed to feel that their organized if frenzied work to protect the monument had been successful, and that the risk to the Castle had eased, with the fire front still 2 to 2.5 miles away.

In a fire, providing specific distances is difficult: Fire lines aren’t straight, and neither are many boundary lines.

Nobody could remember another fire getting that close to the Castle, although noted artist Robert Reynolds recalled online when he was a guide there in 1960, and lived in the servant’s quarters. “We were shocked in seeing the fire coming over the hills” behind the Castle, he wrote online. “Many of us went down to the Neptune Pool, and we sat and watched the fire. Airplanes began coming” to do air drops.

He said he hoped the firefighters and pilots were saluted and lauded for what they did. “Without them, there would have been no Hearst Castle left.”

Hearst Ranch and Cambria

The Chimney Fire also roared through thousands of acres of Hearst Ranch, consuming historic cabins and leaving the land scarred with blackened hillsides laced with strips of scraped firelines and wide swaths of retardant dropped over and over and over by air attack craft large and small.

Stephen Hearst, family heir and corporation vice president, said that, while he knows that “in five to 10 years, this probably will be a good benefit to the countryside,” because of regeneration and other benefits to wild land, “it’s pretty tough now on all of us.”

The fire destroyed or damaged several other North Coast cabins or homes. Other residents of the area waited fearfully through each day, each night, and then each morning to hear if their homes had survived another onslaught.

Bless you people for being away from your families to help us. All your efforts and kindness are truly appreciated.

Michele Oksen, resident of Santa Lucia hill country

Urban Cambria was never directly threatened, fire officials said, but the town’s phone tree (wearily nicknamed the “jungle drums”) buzzed day and night, as weary neighbors and friends shared the latest news there and on social media.

The Cambrian maintained a steady presence online, posting updates frequently (sometimes hourly) with information from official and local sources, sometimes providing new statistics or details, sometimes answering readers’ questions, sometimes merely trying to reassure or console.

North Coast

It would be a vast understatement to say the fire was a wakeup call for North Coast residents living in an aging, drought-ridden Monterey pine forest. They’ve been dreading and (hopefully) preparing for wildfire for years.

Some who were the most prepared had close calls, too. Shirley Bianchi, chairwoman of the Cambria FireSafe Focus Group, and Suzy McDonald, co-chair of the group’s outreach committee, are neighbors on upper San Simeon Creek Road.

For days, the McDonalds and Bianchis were prepared to evacuate immediately, with “go bags” packed, houses prepped, arrangements made for small animals, horses taken elsewhere, and invitations accepted to stay with family or in a family home in Cambria.

So far, as of press deadline, they hadn’t gotten the Reverse 911 call or the law-enforcement knock on the door, telling them to evacuate. But on Tuesday, Aug. 23, Cal Fire crews did a “back burn” operation near Pine Mountain, south and east of Hearst Castle, a thick column of smoke rose, a few flames could be seen, and newly calmed nerves were fraying again.

Although that back burn didn’t last long, the uneasiness it caused did.

Then, later that night, back burn hot, red flames and smoke were once again looming in the nighttime sky near Rocky Butte, and many North Coast residents went into full alert mode. Helicopters flew overhead, rattling windows and raising stress levels.

Even a reassuring email from the Cambria Fire Department didn’t allay those fears completely.

The email sent about 8:30 p.m. said, “We are receiving numerous calls from concerned citizens regarding the visible increase in fire activity on the ridge near Rocky Butte. This is nothing to worry about, the fire is still within its containment lines and fire crews are letting the fire back down the ridge.

“There continues to be NO THREAT to Cambria. If there was even a minimal threat, we would let you know. The fire is in our direct line of sight and appears to be much closer than it actually is. Try not to worry!”

Then early on Wednesday, Aug. 24, Bill Bianchi said fire officials had called about a spot fire in the area, seeking his assistance in notifying area residents. At press deadline, he was working with others to make that happen.

And the fire kept going.

Saying “thank you”

One by one, North Coast residents (and even visitors) searched for ways to thank the dauntless firefighters and other emergency crew members who were working around the clock to control the Chimney Fire.

Carrie Ann Yaple’s family owns rural property that, at press deadline, was essentially cut off, surrounded by fire lines and retardant drops, but the house was still standing.

On Tuesday, Yaple worked with family and friends to create a long “our heroes don’t wear capes” thank-you banner that they posted near the highway north of Cambria.

Others were planning to make individual signs to post, or organize school children to make a series of them.

Leftovers from a “welcome teachers” breakfast wound up at the local fire house to feed weary workers there.

Mojo’s Village Bean coffeehouse offered free single drinks to any emergency-service personnel.

And when North Coast residents and visitors were dining on Friday, Aug. 19, at Redwood Cafe, a company of 20 firefighters came in from the Chimney Fire. One by one, the other customers told restaurant owner Rick Pfannkuche that they wanted to buy a meal for a firefighter. One customer wanted to pay for four of them.

Not one of those firefighters had to pay for his or her own meal.

The fire crews are nothing short of amazing. The work they do, the way they do it, and the confidence they have in managing the job is astonishing.

Oz Barron, Cambria resident

Later, 10 more firefighters came in, and Pfannkuche’s employees combined their tips and other donations to pay for the meals (with some financial assistance from their boss).

Sometimes, the “thank you” messages are posted online.

Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, Michele Oksen wrote about conditions at her house east of Cambria and San Simeon, just over the ridge overlooking Lake Nacimiento.

She wrote, “In my immediate ‘neighborhood’ Cal Fire is already mopping up. Dozers and water tenders are smoothing out and dampening down the road, which in places is knee-high lofty dust. It’s somewhat like driving in deep snow, except dust billows behind the vehicles like a cloud of brown smoke.

“Many firefighters in personal pickups, engines, and other vehicles are still coming through Town Creek Truck Trail from the Lime Mountain side. The ones who stopped to chat were from Grants Pass, Oregon, Santa Barbara, and Sacramento. One guy took a liking to Takoda, my black Labrador and was giving him beef jerky and lots of hugs. He said he missed his Labradors at home.

“Bless you people for being away from your families to help us. All your efforts and kindness are truly appreciated.”

And, as Cambria businessman Oz Barron, who came here seven years ago from Boston, wrote on Facebook, “It’s nerve wracking to see all that smoke, to have ash on your car, and to smell the smoke, strong enough it feels like you live in a fireplace that needs cleaning.

“The fire crews are nothing short of amazing. The work they do, the way they do it, and the confidence they have in managing the job is astonishing. We’re so grateful for them all.

“We’re also grateful for all of you that have expressed concerns. Truly, we’re fine, just on edge, being this close to a major fire event, our first one. I guess we’re getting to be Californians.”

Fire status

As of 7 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24:

Soberanes Fire, north of Big Sur (Soberanes Creek, Garrapata State Park, Palo Colorado): 87,316 acres, 60 percent contained, 57 homes and 11 outbuildings destroyed.

Rey Fire, off Highway 154 and Paradise Road, north of Santa Barbara: 31,255 acres, 34 percent contained.

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