Over the Hill

Chimney Fire response comforts this Paso Robles resident

Zebras and cattle roam a hillside at Hearst Ranch on Saturday as smoke from the Chimney Fire billows in the background.
Zebras and cattle roam a hillside at Hearst Ranch on Saturday as smoke from the Chimney Fire billows in the background. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A photo in Sunday’s Tribune showed a zebra and two steers remaining calm as smoke billowed from an out-of-control fire in the background.

The animals were on Hearst Ranch. One steer lay quietly. The other ate grass. The zebra looked stolidly toward a hill that was veiled with smoke.

If zebras could talk, he probably would have said, “That fire has been burning since Aug. 13. I’ll be glad when they knock it down.”

It’s called the Chimney Fire, and I agree with the zebra: I’ll also be glad when firefighters knock it down. It could seriously injure residents, firefighters or livestock. It is, however, a safe distance from Paso Robles, where I live. But I can see the smoke and occasionally smell it.

Even when I’m not consciously aware of the smoke, it always lurks in the back of my mind. It’s a little like we Americans felt during World War II. In the 48 states, we lived fairly normal lives but could never forget we had a war to win. When we finally won, we felt an enormous relief.

The emotions surrounding the Chimney Fire are, of course, minor league compared with those of WWII — unless, of course, your home was one of 49 destroyed by the fire.

We Paso Roblans and many other North County people can’t ignore the Chimney Fire. If we look toward the coast, we see its smoke billowing behind the western hills, except when it spreads like fog or mist.

We also can’t ignore the firefighting aircraft. Seven air tanker planes and 17 helicopters have been fighting this fire. Some days, they seem to fly continuously in and out of Paso Robles Municipal Airport.

The loaded tanker planes fly fairly low over my neighborhood as they climb toward the fire. A friend called me to wonder if they are a threat to our safety. I’m not worried. They don’t compare with the danger of driving a car out onto Highway 101 north of Paso Robles, where overpasses were never built.

On Wednesday, I think I heard only one plane fly over. I hope that means the fire is getting tamer, not that the air was too smoky to fly in. I also read that the fire was estimated to be 41 percent contained after being stuck so long at 35 percent.

And I was happy to read that fire investigators have determined the fire was not set intentionally. I’m glad it isn’t another case of nuts trying to hurt people.

Actually, this fire has made me optimistic. I drove down Riverside Avenue in Paso Robles a couple of times this week. The Event Center (fairgrounds) and Pioneer Park were crowded with fire engines and tents. It’s reassuring to know that if we face a big threat, thousands of firefighters will show up to help us.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.