Sunday, July 1, 2012

Las Pilitas Fire Remembrance

Twenty-seven years ago today was a Monday and it was the Summer vacation between my 8th and 9th grades so I was about to enter high school for the first time. I had high ambitions of being a successful basketball player after doing well in that sport my 8th grade year. My parents generously paid for me to attend a youth basketball camp at Cuesta College that entire week and that despite our meager finances. Early in the morning mom drove me down Highway 101 to San Luis Obispo and then out to the campus via Highway 1 and dropped me off and returned home to our home in Atascadero.

Later that day when the five-day camp ended for the day that mid-afternoon mom picked me up and began driving me home via Highway 1 to Morro Bay and back over to Atascadero via Highway 41. Along the way she excitedly informed me that there was a big brush fire that had just started back over the hill (Santa Lucia Range) out in the general area east of Santa Margarita that looked pretty bad. At some point along our drive over Highway 41 through the Santa Lucia Mountains the KPRL afternoon update at 3 PM with Ron Fisher played on the radio (at least that's my memory of who it was). We heard him in his inimitable way describe a major brush fire that was first reported around 1:30 that afternoon and which was burning east of Santa Margarita near Santa Margarita Lake (Salinas Reservoir) threatening homes, forcing evacuations and was estimated to have burned 600 acres at that point. When we broke through the western hills of Atascadero we got our first unobscured sighting of the header above the fire. It had "that look"  that most of our historic fires around here develop within the first few hours. By late evening the fire had charred 6,000 acres. As it would later turn out to be the case, the fire was started accidentally by an automobile on Las Pilitas Road near its crossing of the Salinas River.

Early the next morning mom drove me down the 101 freeway again en route to basketball camp and the fire looked rather unimpressive compared to the previous day with just diffuse smoke in the area. As with the day before mom picked me up at the end of Day Two of camp which was also Day Two of what would become known as the Las Pilitas Fire. Once again on the way home via the coast and Highway 41 it became clear the fire was going nuclear again this day. This became a familiar pattern for the entire week as each day mom drove me to and from the basketball camp and each morning coming down the 101 it would appear to me they got a handle on the fire and by afternoon coming back the 41 it would be on yet another ripping tear through chaparral and oak woodland as the blaze grew to what would ultimately be a 74,600 acres charred along with 12 homes and 12 outbuildings and 5 automobiles. 

At some point early to mid-week the fire actually had the temerity to jump Santa Margarita Lake and Pozo Road to the south of the lake and run up into the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Los Padres National Forest. That all this could happen is no wonder given that on Day One of the first it was 105° with 8% humidity in the fire area when it burned 6,000 acres. Day Two it was 100° when it grew to 12,000 acres. Day Three it was 102° when it grew to 14,000 acres. Day Four it was 107° and grew to 25,000 acres. Day Five it was 87° and grew to 38,000 acres. Day Six stats I don't have but on Day Seven it was 104° and grew to 54,000 acres. Day Eight it reached 100°. Day Nine it was 90° and grew to 70,000 acres.

On Sunday, July 7, 1985, (Day Seven of the fire) our family drove over the Cuesta Grade on the 101 to attend church in San Luis Obispo. As we came down the grade we saw that the fire was by then on the opposite side of East Cuesta Ridge which was the same ridge the highway climbed up the west face of to get over the grade. There was something ominous-looking about the whole scene despite the lazy nature of the smoke and I even remember that menacing "snake-in-the-grass" look of those lazily rising pillars of smoke now looking back 27 years later. As we returned from church by the same route the scene looked pretty much the same but there was a growing tension to the scene.

In the wee hours of the morning of Monday, July 8th, the fire pushed by strong downslope winds swept down out of the Santa Lucia Range and south face of the Cuesta Grade and Reservoir Canyon and entered the outskirts of San Luis Obispo. This fiery assault threatened hundreds of homes which were saved only by Providence and a brave and desperate struggle by firefighters, many of them on strike teams from the Los Angeles area including 80 engine companies from LAFD. By the time we awoke the next morning all hell had broken lose overnight and the fire was marching on San Luis Obispo driven by fierce down-slope winds and even jumped the 101 Freeway and threatened Cal Poly. At that point the 101 was shut down and remained thus for a day or two following until the lines were tied in along the freeway as they had a several thousand acre firing operation on the north side of the Cuesta Grade between the east side of the freeway and the fire front. This prevented the fire from jumping the 101 to the west and charring what was going to burn up in 1994's Highway 41 Fire which consumed 48,352 acres and did succeed in jumping the 101 to the east and also burning several thousand acres of the then-9-year old Las Pilitas burn area.
On the same day the Las Pilitas Fire began so did the Wheeler Fire down near Ojai on the Ojai District of the Los Padres National Forest which went on to burn 118,000 acres in Ventura County. Unbeknownst to me at the time was the fact that California was being assaulted by many other bad fires during the time of the Las Pilitas Fire including disastrous fires in Baldwin Hills (48 homes destroyed and 3 killed), Normal Heights (63 homes destroyed) and near Lexington Reservoir in the Santa Cruz Mountains (42 structures lost and over 13,000 acres charred).
Later that year was the Mexico City Earthquake which killed over 10,000 people as well as the Nevado del Ruiz lahar disaster at Armero, Colombia, that killed 22,000 people as well as our house got struck by lightning and finally, my father's death which all added up to a rather foreboding and strange several month period.

Note: my own recollections aside I wish to give credit for some statistical details to Raymond Ford, Jr. in his book Santa Barbara Wildfires and to the forums at

1 comment:

  1. i remember evacuating from our house in tassajara canyon during the fire, the day before we moved our stuff, me and my brother rode down to 101 and sat in the middle of the freeway on both sides cuz we knew wed never see it that dead ever again