NORTH COUNTY ABLAZE: Firefighters battle rash of wildfires

© 2017-Paso Robles Press

The hot and dry summer has begun with a fury of fast-moving fires. Local and state fire crews have now contained the 350-acre Stone Fire that began July 9 and burned one residence and six buildings, and the 1,598-acre Hill Fire from June 30th and destroyed four homes, both east of Santa Margarita.

On Tuesday, North County drivers were at a halt in their cars as a string of five fires, now named the Spring Fire, blazed and smoked along the Highway 101 from Atascadero to San Miguel. According to Cal Fire, the series of fires was started by hot particles from the exhaust of a passing vehicle.

Air quality in the North County has been affected as the Alamo Fire off Highway 166 near Twitchell Reservoir still burns, with smoke from that fire accumulating in the local atmosphere along with smoke from the fires closer to home. The Alamo Fire has burned a total of 28,687 acres and was 78 percent contained as of Thursday.

Newer fires are moving in at a quick pace. By Monday night the Garza Fire had burned 12,000 acres in the Avenal area of Kings County and flames and smoke were seen for 20 to 30 miles, as far away as Paso Robles. The Cal Fire Fresno-Kings Unit had nearly 1,000 personnel and 66 fire engines on the job. Garza was 17 percent contained as of Tuesday. Cal Fire of San Luis Obispo county received a significant amount of calls from our county citizens, and has requested that people remain vigilant, and should call 9-1-1 to report further smoke or fire sightings.

“Firefighters are still dealing with a lot of open line out there,” said Cal Fire Public Information Officer Chris Elms, adding the firefighters are trying to “mop-up” (extinguish) hot spots. Yet even with the county’s many fires, the deep terrain and hot temperatures (such as Paso Robles’ high of 110 degrees last week), Elms feels confident that local fire agencies have enough personnel to manage.

“I think we are getting our needs met,” Elms said. “We’re expecting cooler temperatures, and a little more humidity, which we definately need.”

As far as California’s firefighting networks go, Elms explained the well-run collaboration of agencies (Cal Fire, U.S. Forest Service, and statewide stations) that manage these fires is an extremely efficient system. Units train year-round for these kind of emergencies. In other words, no need to panic.

Still, concerned locals have been tweeting and posting concerns on media, not just commenting on public safety, lost structures, and blackened acres of land and trees, but in praise of our local firefighters. Upon viewing an aerial photo of blackened acres of land from the Stone Fire, surrounded in orange fire retardant dropped by air tankers, one Atascadero News Facebook follower wrote: “Wow. Thank you firefighters. You do miracles,” and another, Toni Baugh McIver, wrote, “That must have been so scary for them.” Many readers said that they were amazed that firefighters were able to save homes right in the center of blazing fires.

According to Cal Fire and local sources, fire forces haven’t suffered more than the minor injuries thus far this summer: some bee stings, heat exhaustion, and the like. However, this is the first spark of the California fire season.

Bill White, Fire Captain for the City of Atascadero, admits his teams are busier than ever. He said there’s talk about changing the California state bird to the air tanker. 

White described the department’s “tailboard meetings” as an essential part of the fire crew’s morning routine. Firefighters begin the day sitting on the tailboard of the fire truck, while the division leader goes over the goals and objectives of the day, as well as the hazards to look out for.

“It’s important to be on the same page,” White said. He said his teams are coming back from fires tired and hot and mentioned that the recent brush fire near Chalk Mountain Golf Course in Atascadero brought in engines from Monterey, while our local teams were inundated with nearby fires. White said California is prepared for fires beginning this time of year and on into December, but having so many fires within San Luis Obispo county is highly unusual.

To deal with the long days and needed breaks, White said his crews might sleep in tent camps or hotel rooms when far from their stations. And after burning approximately 3,000-6,000 calories fighting fires, the firefighters need to be strict and regimented to stay ready for the next work shift. White described, for example, a routine of meticulously balancing Gatorade and water intake, in a two-to-one ratio, so that his team doesn’t waste their energy on empty sugar calories. During the days the firefighters are eating brown bag lunches packed with protein, fruits, and vegetables and maybe the occasional Snickers. Refreshing after a fire and taking care of their bodies is paramount to stay focused and strong, and it’s part of their job.

Kristin Salmeron, a nurse, mother of an 11-month-old son, and local resident, said her husband, a PCF firefighter stationed in Paso Robles, worries about her husband getting enough sleep. The unpredictability of fires also unsettles her nerves, even though she knows her husband is a strong person both mentally and physically.

“The weather does it’s own thing,” she said. “You can’t control the wind direction, and that’s one of the most dangerous things about working on these types of fires.”

Her husband was recently sent to a blaze in Fresno County, though she is not sure exactly where. Days go by without hearing from him because of difficult Wi-Fi reception and the complication of their work schedules.

“Honestly, it’s really hard to keep track of him,” she said. Sometimes he’ll only have a second to text me. He’ll say, ‘I’m in Fresno right now. I’m going back to Morgan Hill for a structure fire or a vegetation fire.’ Really in one day he could be at two different fires.”

“Friends, family, people at the workplace, they’re always asking, ‘Where’s your husband at?’” Salmeron said. She appreciates the emotional support that provides, especially recognizing that her husband has a very difficult job.

Salmeron said her husband, who she described as very stable and calm person, copes with the fires with humor and positivity.

“He’s a jokester,” she said. “He always seems to lighten the moment. He always find something to laugh about.”

While the local fire teams are hard at work, White said “we’re trying to get people to help themselves,” as far as getting people prepared for the fires to come. He said the best thing people can do is trim their trees, clean the leaves out of the gutters, be proactive with weed abatement, and mow their grass as early as they can. Make sure their house numbers are clear and easy to see. People need to visualize a fire truck fitting on the road up their driveways. Can it fit? White said it would also help them greatly if all the trees were trimmed and the way up to their structures were clear of branches and combustible waste material.

Cal Fire and San Luis Obispo County Fire also released a public warning for drivers, as motorists are responsible for many wildfires along our roadways. They say to check your vehicles prior to driving.

“Ensure there are no mechanical deficiencies, no dragging chains,” Elms said.

They also warn to keep tires properly inflated. For more information, visit www.preventwildfireca.org or www.readyforwildfire.org.

© 2017-Paso Robles Press


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