Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Parkhill Fire Country

Last Sunday the latest wildfire began out in the Parkhill Country of San Luis Obispo County. It is the latest in a series of serious and destructive wildfires that narrowly fell short of becoming major historical wildfires. The 2017 installment of this story is the Hill Fire which began along Parkhill Road this past Sunday afternoon and consumed 1,598 acres and 4 homes, including a log cabin and other structures owned by Big Bang Theory actor Johnny Galecki whose 360-acre ranch was destroyed.

A birds-eye view of the early stages of the Hill Fire from the perspective of the air attack orbiting above the fire.
Image courtesy of CAL FIRE (all rights reserved).

The Parkhill Country area due to a convergence of climate and terrain and fuel types and the way people live out there is a firefighting nightmare and has a noteworthy history of wildfires. It is a maze of spur ridges overlain by extensive fuel beds of mature chaparral which region is prone to afternoon northwest winds during the summer fire season. Fires can run uphill almost constantly no matter which way they burn or where in particular they start within this region. This has lent and continues to lend itself to a busy fire history.

The area's biggest largest fire was the Highway 58 Fire which started August 15, 1996, at Black Mountain RV Park on Blue Road. This occurred when a tenant/resident working for reduced rent while clearing out old abandoned vehicles from the property started an old International Harvester parked in tall grass. He was sitting in the driver's seat when he noticed a glow on the grass adjacent to the open driver's side door and realized there was fire underneath the automobile. Things quickly went downhill from there.
The Ackerson Complex was going on in Tulare County and other incidents in the state so aircraft availability was limited during the first hours of the initial attack. In fact, as I recall there were only one or two S-2s dropping on it initially and no air attack so for a time the CHP Air 70 fixed-wing unit did what it could as an aerial observation platform to inform the IC what was happening during the first hour or so of the fire. When the afternoon winds kicked in and combined with where it was headed and the resource availability, the IC fairly early on informed SLO that this was going to be a "major fire incident".... kind of like we have heard on this incident today. It went on to burn 106,668 acres, and about a dozen homes in private inholdings in the LPF and consumed the Machesna Wildnerness Area and threatened condor nesting in the area.

In 2002 there was another Highway 58 Fire started just east of Highway 229/58 intersection which burned east and consumed 1,000 acres and 2 homes.

In 2003 there was a Parkhill Fire which started nearby off Parkhill Rd which burned eastward and consumed 1,200 acres and 3 homes.

In 2012 there was the Calf  Fire which began in private land west of Parkhill Road just west of the community of Parkhill and consumed 640 acres at one point briefly spotting across to the east side of Parkhill Road.

In 2015 there was a Park Hill Fire which started on Las Pilitas Road and burned in the general area of Las Pilitas x Parkhill Road and eastward and consumed 1,791 acres and 6 dwellings of various types.

And now in 2017 there was the Hill Fire which started on Parkhill Road and burned 1,598 acres and 4 dwellings including the aforementioned Galecki ranch. 

Speaking of Las Pilitas, in 1985, a fire began on Las Pilitas Road further west closer to the Salinas River Bridge and burned southward jumping Santa Margarita lake and Pozo Road and ran up into the Santa Lucia Mnts. and the Los Padres NF. A week later a katabatic wind drove it off of Cuesta Ridge down into San Luis Obispo. Aggressive firefighting house to house kept it out and saved SLO. The Las Pilitas Fire scorched 74,6400 acres and 12 homes and closing US101 over the Cuesta Grade for days.

Another Las Pilitas Fire in 1950 killed 4 firefighters (1 CDF & 3 DoD FF's) and charred over 22,000 acres.

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