Fire danger seems to be too close for comfort these days, pretty much everywhere you turn. Cambria’s been fortunate so far. Firefighters jumped on the handful of fires that have started this summer on the North Coast.
Two of those fires were, technically speaking, actually one. The Bridge Fire that started July 24 near Coast Union High School was a delayed-reaction blaze ignited by lightning from a rare summer storm five days earlier. Then, a week and a half later, a slow-burning treetop that had escaped detection fell and ignited material on the ground, starting another half-acre fire in the same area.
In mid-June, firefighters quickly contained a blaze near a homeless encampment in thick brush west of Highway 1 near Trenton Drive — a fire that could have easily spread beyond the 50-by-50-foot containment area under less ideal conditions. The presence of the marine layer and the absence of wind helped firefighters extinguish the blaze quickly.
Another fire, on the east side of Highway 1 near Harmony, was doused quickly as well on July 20.
To see how bad a highway fire can get, and how quickly it can spread, just look at the one that started on a blazing hot Sunday along U.S. Highway 101 on the Cuesta Grade.
Not quite an eyewitness
I know how hot it was that day, because I was up there taking photos just a few hours before the fire started.
Old roads fascinate me, and the area has more than one I wanted to investigate. I’d already checked out the Old Stage Coach Road, a winding, gravelly road over the pass west of the modern highway. It’s the successor to the old Padre Trail, which dates back to the 18th century. There’s a turnoff near San Luis Obispo, near the point where the grade begins its steepest ascent, and it rejoins the highway near the summit, a few miles farther north.
A few hundred yards from the southern intersection, the Old Stage Coach Road branches off from a concrete roadway that’s a section of the old Highway 101. Predecessor of the modern highway, it curls like a serpent’s tail around a hill just west of the impressive retaining wall that keeps the freeway from sliding down the hill.
How hot was it that day? I could tell it was sweltering because the first water bottle purchased was gone before I even started my planned, short hike down the old highway. I took a brief detour to explore El Camino Real through Santa Margarita, where I stopped to buy a second, larger water bottle. It was only later that I checked the paper and saw that the mercury had risen to 110 in Santa Margarita that day.
It was a comparatively “cool” 90 degrees in San Luis Obispo, but I’d still drained that second bottle by the time I finished hiking as far as I could on the old 101. (Part of the road is on private property that’s protected by barbed wire, but I was able to hike down from the modern highway and get some photos of that section, as well.)
I wanted to get some photos of another section of the old highway, off the northbound side, but access to that area was blocked by workers and trucks, so I called it a day about 3:30 p.m. and headed back to SLO, where I met my wife — who has more interest in browsing through bookstores than in braving ungodly temperatures to photograph old, forgotten slabs of concrete. (Can you blame her?)
How many close calls?
Imagine my surprise when we got home and learned, shortly after dinner, that the northbound side of the grade I’d been exploring just hours before had caught fire. Another close call. We’ve had too many of them in these parts lately, which is why the work of folks like the Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group and, of course, the firefighters who respond to the flames are critically important.
Any of those four fires that started in Cambria could have become the kind of inferno that engulfed the Cuesta Grade; and the results would have been far worse. A hike through Cuesta Canyon is a pretty lonely trek: a few widely scattered farmhouses and not much else. The closest population center is Santa Margarita, the focus of a since-lifted evacuation order and home to roughly 1,200 people — and that’s just slightly more than one-fifth the size of Cambria, where homes stand in the shadow of Monterey pine canopies and treetops … like the burning crown of the tree that fell and started the second fire near the high school.
It was as though lightning had struck twice in the same place.
Despite the best efforts of firefighters, weird things like that can happen. That’s why it’s essential to be prepared to move.
And keep our fingers crossed that our good luck holds.