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Homes Still Threatened as Cuesta Fire Grows to 2,500 Acres

Santa Margarita evacuation continues overnight; blaze now 15% containment

The Cuesta Fire burns downhill on the Santa Lucia Range over Highway 101 near the Santa Margarita exit on Tuesday. The cars are heading southbound.
The Cuesta Fire burns downhill on the Santa Lucia Range over Highway 101 near the Santa Margarita exit on Tuesday. The cars are heading southbound. (David Middlecamp / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)

As the Cuesta Fire in San Luis Obispo County continued to burn for a third day, residents and business owners in Santa Margarita watched and waited Tuesday while smoke billowed up a hillside about a half mile southwest of town. 

With 339 homes threatened, a voluntary evacuation order remained in effect, and Santa Margarita Elementary’s first day of school on Wednesday was canceled.

Winds blew the blaze close to Santa Margarita on Tuesday, but firefighters were able to maintain a wide fire break they had bulldozed out of the brush, keeping the flames from spreading to any homes or structures.

The fire had scorched 2,500 acres as of 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, and was 15 percent contained as it continued to burn in three separate blazes east of Highway 101.

Two of the highway’s three northbound lanes on the Cuesta Grade remained open, and Highway 58 through Santa Margarita was open in both directions.

Air quality countywide was affected so that even healthy people could suffer ill effects from the particulates in the smoke, the county Air Pollution Control District warned.

Anyone experiencing a cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, exhaustion, light-headedness or chest pain should stop outdoor activity and seek medical attention, health officials said.

Cal Fire trucks move along East Cuesta Ridge Road, through an area already charred by the Cuesta Fire, which swelled to 2,500 acres on Tuesday. Click to view larger
Cal Fire trucks move along East Cuesta Ridge Road, through an area already charred by the Cuesta Fire, which swelled to 2,500 acres on Tuesday. (David Middlecamp / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)

About 1,000 fire personnel fought the blaze Tuesday while at least three tanker planes dropped red fire retardant and six helicopters refilled water buckets from a Santa Margarita Lake booster treatment plant.

The aircraft are required to quit flying a half-hour before sunset.

The voluntary evacuation order for Santa Margarita residents living south of Highway 58 was expected to remain in effect until at least Wednesday morning, Cal Fire spokesman Bennet Milloy said.

“The fire is going to burn actively through the night until we get the marine layer moving into the area,” he said.

Santa Margarita Elementary School delayed its opening day of classes because it lies within the evacuation area.

“This closure will remain in effect until local authorities lift the order,” the Atascadero Unified School District said in a statement. “AUSD’s No. 1 priority is the safety and well-being of our students, staff and community.”

Cal Fire officials said Tuesday evening that the fire is in an area that hasn't burned in about 30 years, and is expected to continue to spread southeast in the Santa Lucia wilderness.

A combination of steep terrain, hot weather and moderate winds, as well as extreme drought conditions, mean spot fires in the Santa Margarita area also are possible. 

Many residents and business owners remained in Santa Margarita on Tuesday, despite the evacuation order.

Sophie Treder, a land law attorney who works out of an office at 22985 El Camino Real, one of the structures closest to the fire, stayed at work on Tuesday and spent much of the day providing ice for a bucket of sports drinks and water.

Treder and others in her building offered up the beverages for the firefighters, who were stationed nearby off Wilhelmina Avenue. They felt the fire was far enough away not to evacuate.

“We have confidence in the firefighters,” Treder said. “And there’s really nothing in that area. It kind of looks like it’s blowing east, and there’s nothing but brush for miles.”

Fire officials were most concerned with increasing afternoon winds, which also had picked up Monday afternoon.

The flames burned across the eastern edge of the Cuesta Grade in an area of brush, oak trees and power lines.

A power line briefly smoldered at about 11 a.m. from the ash that was raining down, and PG&E crews visited the site to monitor the situation and make sure power stayed on.

The winds alternated from blowing easterly to northerly during the late morning. Periodic northerly winds ushered the flames toward town, and a hillside between Highway 101 and town became consumed with smoke and flames during the course of an hour.

Aircraft were flying in at a more frequent pace by about 12:30 p.m., dropping water from buckets on hot spots near the freeway, holding the line where firefighters had bulldozed several hundred yards of flatlands to keep the flames from leaping toward the town.

Santa Margarita is separated from the fire area by the break line and another hillside.

Cal Fire San Luis Obispo Station 12 Fire Capt. Amber Henderson said that firefighters have been challenged by steep terrain and extremely dry conditions.

“We were the first to respond on the first day, and because this fire was in three (locations), it was hard to contain,” Henderson said. “We couldn’t surround it easily or take as aggressive of an approach as we would have liked.”

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

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