The Cambrian

Fire fatigue isn’t over; we’re in this for the long haul

Smoke from the Chimney Fire can be seen from a hillside above Highway 1 and Ardath in Cambria on Aug. 19.
Smoke from the Chimney Fire can be seen from a hillside above Highway 1 and Ardath in Cambria on Aug. 19. Special to The Cambrian

Breathe a sigh of relief? Not so fast.

Yes, the heroic efforts of firefighters battling an ever-evolving, evasive conflagration were enough to keep Hearst Castle, San Simeon and Cambria out of harm’s way — this time. But only after more than two weeks of nail-biting by North Coasters warily watching the east for any sign that the Chimney Fire might be about to breach containment.

Those were two-plus weeks of exhausting, edge-of-our seats worrying.

We all have fire fatigue. But imagine what it must be like for foothill residents such as Shirley Bianchi, Michele Oksen, Marcia Rhoades and others, who were close to the front lines in the highlands northeast of Cambria. Belongings had to be packed, ranch animals had to be carted off in trailers, and then there was nothing to do but wait. Before long, fire officials issued an evacuation warning that told residents of the San Simeon Creek area what they already knew: They had to be ready to get out of there at a moment’s notice.

Then they waited some more.

Smoke arose from the western slopes. The orange glow of flames flickered briefly in the brush way up there — at a seemingly safe distance, but for how long? And was it a “back burn” or the main fire itself, rearing up like an angry dragon poised to launch a fierce assault on the coastal plain?

Such questions were asked, then answered, then asked anew as the situation shifted with the winds. Containment figures seemed stuck at one point, and the target date for full containment? It kept moving in the wrong direction, past August and into September.

The Chimney Fire was far from the only one raging, as firefighters were called upon to battle blazes up and down the state simultaneously. In fact, as of Aug. 25, more than 4,200 fires had been reported across the state already this year.

And it’s not over yet — not by a long shot.

A map produced by the National Interagency Fire Center showed the red swath of “above normal” risk painting the coast from San Diego all the way up to the southern edge of Humboldt County for August. It’s the color of foreboding: Red for fire; red for danger; red for “stop!” And it’s still there in the September map, just as ominous, just as unsettling. It’s only in October and November that the map shows the risk level “returning to normal” for the area north of Santa Barbara County — although it’s still projected as “above normal” from there southward.

Worse still, we seem to have entered the era of the megafire, with half of the 20 largest California wildfires since 1920 having roared to life in just the past 14 years. The drought is only making things worse, with tinder-dry brush and trees setting the table for fires caused by everything from lightning to unattended campfires.

Truth be told, lightning — which started a fire near Cambria’s Coast Union High School in the spring — is rarely the culprit. According to Cal Fire, in 95 percent of the cases, it’s us.

Humans.

And most of the time, it’s not arson. It’s carelessness.

Do you have a chain or muffler dragging from your car? Fix it. Now. And for the love of Pete, don’t go off-roading.

Are you using a weed-cutter? Yes, it’s a great idea to clear defensible space around your home, but please make sure it’s in proper working order. Sparks from one of these started an 8,700-acre fire that burned 80 Santa Barbara County homes in 2009.

If you throw a cigarette butt out of your car or onto the ground as you’re walking around, you’re no better than a drunken driver. Maybe worse, considering the amount of damage a fire can cause. Yes, cigarettes must be “self-extinguishing” these days under California law, but why take the chance? Besides, you’d be littering.

Are you out target shooting? That’s been known to cause wildfires, too. At the very least, use lead-core bullets with a copper jacket: A U.S. Forest Service study showed these are least likely to ignite vegetation, compared with steel and solid copper bullets. Then again, if there’s a lot of dry brush out there, why not wait until fire season has passed altogether? Or, better still, just go to a firing range.

Cambria and Hearst Castle dodged the proverbial sort of bullet with the Chimney Fire, but imagine what would might have happened if Lake Nacimiento hadn’t given firefighters a helping hand by providing a natural, watery containment line along the fire’s eastern flank.

And imagine what might happen if the drought continues, serving up still more fuel for future fires in dry seasons that stretch even further into winter.

The sad thing is, we might not have to imagine it. If we’re not careful — very careful — fire fatigue could easily become the new normal.

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