While most were riveted to their television sets watching the Southern California fires rage two weeks ago, firefighters were called to San Luis Obispo to fend off yet another potentially devastating fire.
Caused by electricity from arching power lines connecting with the dry grass in the hills behind El Cerrito Court above Flora Street, the fire started about 8:30 a.m. Nov. 14. and was out by 5:30 p.m. the same day.
Dubbed the El Cerrito fire, it burned 60 acres, harming no structures or people. Residents in homes at the edge of suburban development were ordered to evacuate as the fire came within a few hundred feet of their homes, but the order was called off by 1 p.m.
Chris Dicus, associate professor of fire and fuels management at Cal Poly, said that arching power lines have also caused fires on campus.
“Occasionally (with) the electricity that is flowing through these high voltage power lines, there will be for whatever reason, some type of connection established between the ground and the power line,” Dicus said. “So the power lines will actually take their electricity and arch down to the ground and ignite the fuels that are there.”
Dicus added that this fire was problematic because of the combination of drought-like conditions and the wind that kept shifting in different directions.
“We’ve seen this trend across the Western United States where there is a drying trend as well as a temperature increase trend,” Dicus said. “This is causing longer fire seasons; fires are able to start breaking out earlier in the year and they last longer into the typical fire season.”
Although some of San Luis Obispo’s fire suppression equipment was down in Montecito, Jane Schmitz, fire captain for Cal Fire, said this was not a cause for concern. It is a common occurrence to have fire crews scattered throughout the state when fires hit.
“We actually grabbed a strike team of engines from Northern California that was headed to the Montecito fire (and) then we had (firefighters from) Grover beach, Arroyo Grande, Cayucos, Santa Margarita and San Luis city all help to put out the fire.”
In the end, over 200 firefighters and one air tanker came to the city and Cal Fire’s aid.
Power lines often present another fire hazard at Cal Poly when combined with the buzzards that often sit on them.
“(We) had two fires start up Poly Canyon in the last three years by buzzards actually sunning themselves on power lines,” Dicus said. “Stretching themselves and making the connection and you have this flaming buzzard that hits the ground.”
Although Cal Poly has seen four fires on campus in the last three years, it is well protected from a suppression standpoint, Schmitz said.
She said that the school has a contract with the city firefighters, who protect the buildings from being burned. Cal Fire is responsible for putting out brush fires, the most common type at Cal Poly, which usually has fires up Horse Canyon and Poly Canyon.
Dicus said that although local resources have always done a “phenomenal job” putting fires out on campus, he was quick to add that everyone needs to do their part to help the firefighters before a fire breaks out.
“I would say that we as a university and society in general can’t rely on the fire service to take care of all our problems,” he said. “If the firefighters are the soldiers, you’ve got to do your part to fight the enemy by fortifying our structures by construction materials and assembly (and) by cutting off the enemy supply line by modifying the fuels in the area.”
Cal Fire encourages preventative practices such as creating 100 feet of defensible space around homes, planting fire-resistant vegetation, using ignition-resistant construction and making sure to have spark arresters on devices such as lawnmowers and motorbikes.
“It’s not so much keeping fire from happening because fire is a natural process and consistent here in SLO county,” Dicus said. “But trying to protect the human infrastructure (and helping) the firefighters by preparing the battlefield.”