Wednesday, May 23 , 2018, 5:01 pm | Overcast 64º

 
 
 
 

Local News

San Luis Obispo County Wildfire Escalates to Over 1,000 Acres Near Santa Margarita

Hundreds of residents evacuated from rural area 11 miles east of Highway 101; several homes may have burned

Smoke billows up Saturday from a vegetation fire that had charred more than 1,000 acres near Santa Margarita in northern San Luis Obispo County. Several houses were reported burned, and hundreds of residents were encouraged to evacuate.
Smoke billows up Saturday from a vegetation fire that had charred more than 1,000 acres near Santa Margarita in northern San Luis Obispo County. Several houses were reported burned, and hundreds of residents were encouraged to evacuate. (Laura Dickinson / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)

Hundreds of San Luis Obispo County residents evacuated their homes Saturday as a fast-moving wildfire burned out of control east of Santa Margarita, charring more than 1,000 acres.

CalFire Battalion Chief Tom McEwen said Saturday night that the fire was completely uncontained and “has the potential to spread to 2,000 acres.”

The cause of the fire was unknown, and McEwen said flames spread quickly in the area of Park Hill and Las Pilitas roads after it was reported at about 2:23 p.m.

The rural neighborhood of homes and ranches is about 11 miles east of Santa Margarita and three miles north of Santa Margarita Lake. Santa Margarita is 10 miles north of San Luis Obispo, along Highway 101.

Late Saturday, CalFire spokeswoman Es Berliner said the fire was not contained and that two structures were known to have burned. Earlier, a CalFire spokesman said three homes had burned.

No injuries were reported.

Park Hill and Las Pilitas roads remained closed Saturday night. Fire crews were hopeful of holding the blaze so that it wouldn’t spread past River Road, about nine miles down Park Hill Road from Highway 58, Berliner said.

At least one power line burned, and a live wire fell onto the 3000 block of Park Hill Road at about 5 p.m., blocking people from evacuating until emergency workers were able to move it aside.

About 430 PG&E customers lost power as a result of the fire, but 328 of those customers had their electricity restored by 7 p.m., PG&E spokeswoman Jacqueline Ratto said. She said crews would continue to work in the area through the night.

The county Department of Animal Services and the private Horse Emergency Evacuation Team were helping residents to evacuate their animals and livestock.

The American Red Cross of Central California set up an evacuation center at Santa Margarita Elementary School, 22070 H St., to provide residents with snacks, water and a place to gather, said Jessica Piffero, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit agency.

A firefighting plane prepares to drop retardant on a blaze that burned more than 1,000 acres in northern San Luis Obispo County on Saturday. (Laura Dickinson / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)
A firefighting plane prepares to drop retardant on a blaze that burned more than 1,000 acres in northern San Luis Obispo County on Saturday. (Laura Dickinson / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)

“We will be able to provide updates to residents (on the status of the fire) as it becomes available,” she said.

If at least a dozen people need a place to spend the night, the Red Cross would turn the center into an overnight shelter, she added.

At 10 p.m., Piffero said the shelter had been opened for the night.

Sheriff’s deputies had gone door-to-door in the Las Pilitas and Park Hill roads areas during the afternoon, telling people to evacuate. The fire has burned on both sides of Las Pilitas Road, between Park Hill Road and Highway 58.

McEwen said 25 fire engines, six aircraft and other equipment, including bulldozers and hand crews, were brought in during the afternoon, with another 15 engines headed to the area.

“We are going to be busting it all night out here,” he said. “We’re going to have a lot of people in the dark tonight.”

Winds were moderate during the day Saturday, blowing at about 2 mph from the southeast with gusts of up to 9 mph, according to SLOweather.com. Still, McEwen said the gusts were the biggest challenge to firefighters because they kept shifting, causing the flames to veer.

“It could go in any direction,” he said.

Las Pilitas Road resident Glenn Westbrook had just taken meat out of his freezer to barbecue when he noticed fire across the street.

“By the time I told the boys to get the animals it had jumped the road,” said Westbrook, who lives on 32 acres about 6½ miles down Las Pilitas off Pozo Road.

He said he left between 2:30 and 2:45 p.m., about the time the fire was reported to have started.

Westbrook did not receive an evacuation order. His son and his son’s friend saved a goat, a rooster and a dog, left the cat, and took the animals to a friend’s house in Santa Margarita.

He showed up at Santa Margarita School looking for information, having heard that four structures had burned and wondering if one of them was his.

“I’m just glad I got myself, my son,” he said. “I just got the boys, we got the animals.”

By early evening, about a half-dozen people had arrived at the campus seeking information or possible shelter if they couldn’t get back home during the night.

Sean Dinneen, who lives on Park Hill Road, rode his motorcycle home from a day in Santa Barbara and spotted smoke from the fire from Highway 101.

“The only thing I knew coming up 101, I could see a huge plume of smoke from the fire but I had no idea it was so close,” he said.

He talked by text message to his landlord, who lives on the same property, who was not evacuated and said then that the fire was about 1½ miles east of them.

Road Closures

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department said Park Hill Road will be closed between River Road and Seven Oaks Way until noon Sunday, as will River Road to Pozo Road.

Evacuation Center

The Red Cross is operating an overnight shelter at Santa Margarita School at 22070 H St.

San Luis Obispo Tribune staff writers Laura Dickinson, Cynthia Lambert, Janet Lavelle and Mark Powell contributed to this report. This article was originally published by The Tribune and is reposted with permission. Click here for more stories from The Tribune.

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