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Evacuation Orders Lifted as Cuesta Fire Grows to 3,500 Acres

Residents allowed to return to Santa Margarita homes; containment increases to 20%

Cal Fire firefighters from Monterey County Sal Mercurio, left, and Stuart Cardoza put out hot spots as crews continue to battle the Cuesta Fire Wednesday.
Cal Fire firefighters from Monterey County Sal Mercurio, left, and Stuart Cardoza put out hot spots as crews continue to battle the Cuesta Fire Wednesday.  (Joe Johnston / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)

Nearly 900 firefighters from around the state continued to battle the Cuesta Fire on Wednesday, even as the blaze grew to 3,500 acres by evening.

Still, containment also rose to 20 percent, and the most active area of the fire was to the southeast, away from the town of Santa Margarita and the 339 homes that had been threatened the day before.

The changing face of the fire prompted Cal Fire officials to cancel an evacuation order at 5 p.m., allowing residents to return home and Santa Margarita Elementary School officials to plan to welcome students to the first day of classes on Thursday — a day later than originally scheduled.

An evacuation center at Santa Rosa Academic Academy in Atascadero closed down once the order was lifted.

Cal Fire officials said they don't expect to be able to fully contain the fire for another week, because of the steep terrain, warm weather and moderate winds they are grappling with as the flames march through drought-seared vegetation.

On Wednesday, firefighters were aided by six helicopters and three air tankers dropping water and fire retardant on the blaze.

On the ground were 89 engines, 26 hand crews, nine bulldozers and four water tankers.

About 100 residents flocked to a community meeting Cal Fire and National Forest Service officials held Wednesday evening at Santa Margarita Elementary School.

Cal Fire/San Luis Obispo Chief Robert Lewin told the crowd that Santa Margarita is likely “out of the woods,” but asked residents to abide by any future evacuation orders.

Of the historically dry conditions, Lewin said “we've not seen these conditions ever in our careers.”

Lewin said the three fires that initially comprised the Cuesta Fire compounded the problem for attack crews who struggled to contain six fire flanks.

A PG&E helicopter cleans fire debris off of power line insulators near the site of the Cuesta Fire Wednesday. Click to view larger
A PG&E helicopter cleans fire debris off of power line insulators near the site of the Cuesta Fire Wednesday.  (Joe Johnston / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)

“It gave an opportunity for the fire to outpace us,” Lewin said.

As of Wednesday, firefighters are dealing with steep terrain as they continue to fight more active areas on the southeastern side of the fire.

“It still takes a long time for them to put in good lines in that terrain,” said Fire Capt. Steve Kaufmann of the Ventura County Fire Department.

Also, Kaufmann said, firefighters normally expect fire activity to increase between noon and 4 p.m. — the hottest part of the day.

In response to a question from a community member, Lewin said he felt confident that flames wouldn’t reach the other side of Pozo Road.

“There’s a lot of protection between Pozo Road and the fire,” he said.

With Santa Margarita Elementary heading back to school Thursday, another resident asked about the Atascadero Unified School District’s plans to evacuate students in an emergency.

“We will be extremely cautious and follow any directions from incident commanders,” said Curt Eichperger, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources.

“If there are concerns about a shift in the weather pattern then we will immediately bring buses out.”

Students could be bused to two possible locations, which Eichperger did not disclose Wednesday. 

Residents clapped repeatedly in gratitude to the firefighters who have kept the flames from reaching their town.

Other Cal Fire officials talked about the challenges firefighters are facing: drought, falling trees, and resources stretched thin as fires erupt across the state. Some firefighters have been working more than a month straight on fires, they said.

Lewin choked up as he talked about three firefighters who died Wednesday battling a wildfire in northern Washington state.

Earlier in the day, piles of white-hot ash could be seen among areas of blackened underbrush as Cal Fire spokesman Bennet Milloy drove up the hillside south of the staging area in Santa Margarita.

Some firefighters and two California Army National Guard teams spent the day mopping up burned areas to prevent ash from blowing and igniting dry grass.

“We’re just making sure we do 100 percent mop-up,” said San Benito/Monterey Cal Fire Capt. Mitch Colombo. “We’re making sure the heat is out of it.”

As Milloy drove around the northeastern perimeter of the fire, he pointed out a drought-stricken tree that had burned and collapsed in the fire, with ash surrounding its base. The dead and dying oak trees, along with other dry fuel, are main concerns for firefighters.

A drought-stricken oak tree is one of many that burned and collapsed during the Cuesta Fire. Click to view larger
A drought-stricken oak tree is one of many that burned and collapsed during the Cuesta Fire.  (Joe Johnston / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)

“We heard them falling all night long,” Milloy said of the oak trees.

That poses significant danger to firefighters on the ground. A firefighter from San Luis Obispo County was paralyzed after he was pinned under a massive oak tree in July while battling a small wildland fire in Tulare County.

Two other firefighters have died while battling California blazes recently. But taking extra precautions make it more difficult to fight the fire. So far, no one has been injured in the Cuesta Fire, something Milloy called “a huge success.”

Other concerns include wind direction.

Fire crews were hoping the winds would continue to keep the fire burning away from residential areas, Milloy said.

About seven residents stayed at the Red Cross shelter at Santa Rosa Academic Academy on Tuesday night and the operation had to adjust a bit Wednesday morning when kids returned for the first day of school, volunteer Cindy Osgood said.

Temporary fences were installed to cordon off the shelter area from the rest of the school population, and the Red Cross reduced the space being used in the cafeteria so that students could get access to their meals.

Although the evacuation order was canceled, already-burned areas south of Santa Margarita were still not considered contained because even a so-called cold area of the fire could pose a threat to the control lines.

Smoke from the more active areas of the Cuesta Fire could be seen to the south and east on Wednesday. A smoke column from the southern portion of the fire started to build about 12:30 p.m.

Later in the afternoon, Milloy said a smoke column was drifting toward Park Hill Road. The smoke could be deceiving, however, as the fire was much closer to the southwest corner of Santa Margarita. Bulldozer work was continuing on the east and west sides of the fire.

At the Cal Fire staging area in Santa Margarita, two crews from the California Army National Guard arrived to help with clean up and free up firefighters to concentrate on the more active areas of the fire.

Twelve crews in total were activated at the end of July; the two crews that arrived Tuesday had already helped out at two separate fires in Northern California. Once their service ends — they can only be on the line for 30 days — they could be replaced by other crews, said Cal Fire Capt. Ken James, who assists with their training.

About 24 National Guard members waited at the staging area in Santa Margarita to learn where they would spend their day.

“For us, coming from civilian work — a lot of us have desk jobs — to turning shovels and hand tools, it's been exciting but physically demanding,” said First Lt. Raul Briseno, who works for San Bernardino County.

[Click here to read updates from the San Luis Obispo Tribune.]

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