When the conditions are right, California can explode.
The Park Hill Fire last week was a stark reminder. Two homes were destroyed, and the 1,791-acre blaze took five days to be fully contained.
It was an eerie shadow of a previous Las Pilitas fire that broke out July 1, 1985.
Both fires started when temperatures soared over 100 degrees and a hot piece of carbon from a car exhaust ignited dry grass along Las Pilitas road.
In 1985, the Las Pilitas fire was the largest in recent memory, and the Telegram-Tribune wrote a 10-day series of stories a year later, one day more than the nine-day fire. The Las Pilitas Fire consumed 75,000 acres of brush, burned 10 homes, cost $6.3 million and jumped fire lines twice.
This included $1.2 million in destroyed property, $1.68 million in firefighter payroll and $918,616 in meals and travel.
The statistics were bad, but it could have been much worse. The day the fire broke out there was no air tanker in Paso Robles — it was fighting a fire in another state.
Capricious winds drove the fire through hills and canyons near Santa Margarita Lake, to Lopez Lake, then to the edge of San Luis Obispo.
The fire was not unprecedented.
The 1985 Las Pilitas fire had been preceded by the 1921 Pilitas fire.
That monster burned more than 120,000 acres and was started by a campfire near what is now the Eagle Ranch south of Atascadero.
Lacking the modern firefighting tools of air tankers and bulldozers, the 1921 blaze was eventually halted by a huge backfire near Creston.
Telegram-Tribune reporter Patrick O’Sullivan wrote about the critical Day 8 of the Las Pilitas Fire on the one-year anniversary, July 8, 1986.
Help call was key to saving SLO
Like a frenzied wild mustang, the Las Pilitas fire had been galloping over the countryside while firefighters scrambled trying to lasso it.
It had already raced through thousands of acres of brush, trees and wildlife in the six days since it started near Santa Margarita Lake on July 1 a year ago. When it came up against fire breaks, it either bolted in another direction or jumped across them, whipped by hot, dry winds.
Jim Rutledge, a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry, scanned the eastern horizon from the top of Cuesta Ridge late that Sunday night. As fire operations chief, his eyes and judgment were the primary source of information for firefighting forces.
He was hopeful the fire could be corralled that night. Flames were advancing toward a ridgetop fire break eight bulldozer blades wide.
If the winds blowing down the slopes — called sundowners — backed off as they normally do later in the evening, that would boost odds of snuffing the week-old wildfire. But as midnight approached and the winds refused to die, the sight of flames flaring across the fire break chilled his heart.
“Once it hit the ridge and jumped an eight-blade dozer line, were were pretty sure we weren’t going to catch it,” Rutlidge said.
He knew the next battle would be the one to save San Luis Obispo.
He also knew what he had to do, and he had to do it immediately.
He called in to the Emergency Operations Center near Camp San Luis Obispo and asked for 16 strike teams — 80 engines — from Southern California.
Back at the EOC, Fred Frank, county fire chief, heard Rutledge’s request. To call that many units was indeed unusual, but it fit right in with everything else he had been hearing that night — none of it good.
The weather prediction had been for fog. Instead dry sundowner winds stubbornly refused to dissipate and even reached gusts of 50 to 70 mph.
Lee Friedman, the operations officer for CDF, had heard from others on the fire lines that trouble was brewing.
And a fire behavior expert, Jack Haisley from the Bureau of Land Management, gave Friedman a blunt warning: “He said, ‘I wouldn’t give you a plugged nickel for that town (San Luis Obispo) if it continues like it is.’”
“It was a design for disaster,” Freidman said.
He passed on to Frank what he had heard.
It didn’t take Frank too long to make up his mind about Rutledge’s request.
“I said, ‘Let ‘em have ‘em,” he said.
He said there was no question that Rutledge’s decision to call for more help when he did was critical in saving the city from a conflagration.
“Had that decision been postponed, the strike teams wouldn’t have had time to get here,” he said.
“They got here in the nick of time and were deployed with a few moments to spare.” The battle against the flames stampeding toward the city was to be nip and tuck the entire morning.
CDF had promised San Luis Obispo Fire Chief Michael Dolder 12 hours’ notice when the fire would hit San Luis Obispo. It didn’t quite work out that way.
Rutledge’s call for strike teams came about 1 a.m. Monday morning. By about 4 a.m. the wall of flames, fanned by swirling winds, raced through Reservoir Canyon.
“It was helter-skelter in Reservoir Canyon,” Dolder said. The winds were just horrendous.” By 8 a.m. it was advancing down the slopes toward Johnson Avenue neighborhoods.
And it was spectacular.
At the top of the ridge above San Luis Obispo, flames shot 800 to 1,000 feet high, Friedman said. When the flames hit town at the bottom of the slopes, they were still 150 feet high, he said.
Exhausted firefighting crews had been rousted about 5 a.m. after a few quick hours of sleep and assigned to protect the city.
Residents in the Johnson Avenue area were ordered to evacuate, although some stayed behind to water down roofs.
Engines arriving from Ventura and Los Angeles County were given photocopies of street maps in the critical areas and sent to protect homes while CDF crews carefully backfired weeds next to the homes.
“We dumped everything we had on that side of town,” Friedman said.
Dolder, bone tired and bleary-eyed from lack of sleep monitoring the fire the past few nights, braced himself for the worst. Winds were still swirling flames around and sending smoldering debris into the air that could easily set the many shake roofs on fire.
For reasons Dolder still can’t fully explain, the city escaped what many thought was a sure disaster.
“I really expected us to lose houses,” he said. “It was next to impossible not to do that. “It didn’t happen but it should’ve happened … call it luck, call it happenstance … If the same thing were happening today, I’d still figure we’d lose some houses.”
Flames came down the hillside like a huge wave. The key for firefighters was being where the wave hit when it hit to protect the houses.
Holding the line at the residential area was like sticking a finger in the dike before the leak grows into a dam break. A burning house is a much greater threat to the other houses than a wildland fire, Dolder said.
Dolder and Friedman also credited split-second timing by helicopter pilots dousing flames threatening homes was also one of the major reasons only one house was damaged and non burned down.
Using CDF fixed-wing bombers to drop fire retardant was ruled out because of erratic winds and smoke. It was a close call to let the helicopters in on the fight.
The pilots had to blow through dense smoke around rough terrain and struggle with the winds. On top of that they had to avoid high-voltage wires strung through the area.
“We were riding the razor’s edge as far as safety factors,” Friedman said. “They did an excellent job, an excellent job.”
The wave of flames crashed against defenses set up by the firefighters and quickly ebbed as the flame front moved away across the hills.
You couldn’t call it a win — the fire still raged on — but the home team had not lost.