The phone rang about four o'clock in the afternoon.
“Jim, it’s Mel, your next door neighbor. I’m in San Luis, and there’s a fire near our houses. Can you smell it?”
“No, and it’s clear,” I said, covering the phone letting Mary know a fire was close. Fire season was directly upon us.
“Okay, Mel,” I replied. “I’ll check outside.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m coming home right now, see you in a half hour. I’ll honk when I pass your place,” she said.
Adam, my 25 year old son, walked in the back door.
“Who was that?”
“Mel, she says there’s a fire.”
“Where?” he asked worriedly.
“Close by,” was the limited answer I gave.
Unsatisfied he grabbed his cell phone. “I’m going up to the water tank, I’ll call you when I see something,” he said.
Sure enough, when I went outside to look, I saw the reports were correct. A large cloud of white smoke billowed skyward somewhere behind the hills that surround our little house. I could see it was growing in size and quickly turning to an ugly, blue-black color.
Mary joined me on the porch. "I think there are two fires now," I said as we watched another cloud gathering on the horizon to the left.
"I'll keep the phone with me. Adam will call then he gets to the top," Mary said.
Here's what Adam saw looking southeast from our backyard into Web Tartaglia's vineyard, the view from the tip-top peak on our property. Adam captured a fire retardant drop you can watch on the video underneath.
Fires are part of the natural cycle in this part of California. The chaparral biome requires fire for rejuvenation, a scientific way to say fire is needed to release the nutrients back into the sandy gravel hills these plants live on.
These plants have adapted to the winter-wet, summer-dry climate of California and to the ravages of fire. In fact, most of them need the force of fire destruction to help them rejuvenate. As the branches from these plants pile up over the years fire is inevitable and living within chaparral plant communities guarantees this imminent threat will eventually descend upon its inhabitants.
The dominant plant carpeting the hillsides is called Chamise, a boring, ugly plant. It is very resinous and highly flammable, and needs to burn to its crown every six, seven, or ten years.
Interspersed among these are Black Sages, Wooly Blue Curls, California Lilacs, and Bush Poppies. These are more interesting plants that put out fragrant, colorful blooms anywhere between January and April. But these beauties are part of this fire cycle as well for their stems and leaves also contain fiery resins and their seeds require the intense heat of a firestorm to generate.
As the weather heats up and the flowers wither the plants send their resinous aroma into the air when the sun's heat hits the hills. The heat is vaporizing volatile resins and these volatile compounds are extremely flammable.
Since 1982 Mary and I have seen six fires close-up and personal. Old timers on Huer Huero Road grimace when a fire ignites, but are ready to face it head-on. The newbies on the road pack up all of their items and run when given the order to evacuate. Below is a pic of Mary as a newbie scared of the oncoming fire in July 1985. Although staying is a dangerous presumption, we have packed every time, ready to go. But we have never been forced to abandon our home. We live in a canyon that backs up into high hills behind and on two sides of us. Luckily, the fire storms have not yet been fierce enough to bridge this canyon, and fire doesn't like to travel down hill. As I said, we have been very lucky.
As you can see from this yellowed article, fires are not a once-in-a-lifetime thing. We have experienced fires that have come close enough to cut off electricity for five days, burn the side hill down to the level of the eucalyptus grove before dying out, and on one fire the firefighters set up camp in our front yard, staying for a couple of days.
One person deciding to start a fire or two hastens this inherent flammability of the dead plant buildup. Historically, the natural burns in chaparral occur during lightning storms in winter and spring. In earlier days, the Chumash Indian would start fires to remove brush from around oak trees to gather acorns whick they used as a food source. Periodic fires are beneficial; the burning releases the minerals from the old branches back into the soil. Problems are developing though because many of these areas haven't burnt for decades, and the fire-fuel level is dangerously high. We are constantly worried about that all-consuming over-the-top firestorm happening here.
In July of 1985, someone was actually starting fires deliberately. He was a seasonal fire worker who wanted more work. The fire that began on Monday, July 1 near Santa Margarita Lake was called the Santa Margarita Lake Fire. On 7/4 it was renamed the Las Pilitas Fire and, two days later, it became a mega fire.
“On July 6, the weather improved with higher humidities, and the Las Pilitas Fire was declared 40% contained, with full containment expected on Sunday the 7th. However, early on the morning of July 8th, temps increased, the winds whipped up dramatically, and the fire set a new course. As it bore down on the eastern outskirts of the City of San Luis Obispo, it threatened the University and reached within a half mile of the SLO General Hospital. Resources were rushed in, including 80 companies from LAFD, and the fire was stopped before consuming the city. It was declared contained on July 11th, and under control on the 15th. It burned about 75,000 acres, and destroyed twenty-four buildings and five vehicles.”
— Los Angeles Times, 1985
Two weeks later another fire erupted in an area that became more personal. It started about four miles away from us and the prevailing winds were pushing it in our direction. Mary called me home from the office and Scott, a neighbor, came to help. The air was cloudy with smoke, and the winds were pushing the fire our way. Scott climbed onto the roof of our house while I cleared the brush from below. Once I was done with the clearing, I ascended the roof with another hose. About 4:30 in the afternoon the wall of the fire showed itself atop the chaparral-covered hillside next to our house, the flames climbed thirty to forty feet in the air as they crested the hill. They were about one thousand yards away and one hundred feet up the hill above us, but I could already feel the heat of the firewall.
“We’re pissing in the wind here!” I yelled at Scott. “We had better find cover!” Throwing the hoses down we scrambled to the nearest vehicle. As the flames crept down the hill, the wind suddenly stopped, the flames died down, and the combination of the steep descent with little wind push caused the fire to stop right there. It was incredible to see a fire that size lie itself down as it marched down our hillside.
Residents in our area were becoming suspicious of a possible arsonist.
“Carson (neighbor CDF firefighter) said the entire neighborhood is fed up with fires and evacuation.” If they find someone who is setting these things off, I don’t think there’s going to be much left of him to give to the cops.”
Once the fire was contained and stamped out, I felt we were more secure. The vast amount of flammable brush that had built up for many years was now reduced to nonflammable ash. The hills scorched by the fire had blackened stems jutting out of ground covered with white-grey ash. The areas burned were safe from a new fire for several years. Another benefit of the fire; it was much easier to create jogging trails through the barren landscape of the burned out hills.
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