Wednesday, August 14, 2019

25th Anniversary of Highway 41 Fire

Twenty-five years ago today the Highway 41 Fire began along the eastbound lane of Highway 41 between Atascadero and Morro Bay near Cerro Alto Campground. The fire, started by an arsonist, exploded across several thousand acres on Day One forcing evacuations, closure of Cerro Alto Campground and closure of Highway 41 between Morro Bay and Atascadero and would remain shut for days to come. The fire barely laid down overnight and reactivated the following morning at dawn making a major run to the west and southwest towards Morro Bay and Highway 1.

At about 6 a.m. on the morning of Day Two (8/15/94) it's early-morning activity caused an automatic power shutdown of the 500kv powerlines running through the area of Cerro Alto Campground taking energy from the Morro Bay Powerplant to points inland.

Day Two saw the fire go nuclear. Well-established in heavy 50 year-old chaparral with up to 40 tons of fuel per acre, most of it desiccated from years of drought (1984-1990) with lots of fallen limbs from two snow storms in 1988 and 1991, an epic freeze in 1990 and then in this year one of the driest winters (Winter of 1993-1994) ever recorded and now on this day triple digit temperatures (hundred-teens inland) with single digit relative humidities. The firestorm that ensued burned up 2 acres per second or over 7,000 acres per hour

The fire savagely tore into the west side of Atascadero, but for the grace of God, causing light damage. It then headed southeast nipping the southwest corner of Atascadero and enveloping the town of Santa Margarita but burning around it, NOT through it.

It jumped Highway 101 and burned both sides of the freeway from just south of Santa Barbara Road in Atascadero all the way down to the bottom of the south side of the Cuesta Grade on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo. The fire burned over Tassajera Ridge and lost steam heading down into Upper Lopez Canyon by which time a day days later a strong marine layer moved inland and dropped coastal drizzle on the fire dousing it.

The fire devastated Tassajara Canyon off of the bottom of the north side of the Cuesta Grade. In all 48,352 acres were charred and 42 homes, 61 other structures and 91 vehicles were destroyed. The arsonist was interviewed but there was never enough evidence to indict.

I have always wondered why a civil case was not pursued against this individual as was successfully done against the arsonist who started the Painted Cave Fire four years earlier.


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