chimney fire header

In August 2016, San Luis Obispo County was devastated by what came to be known as the Chimney Fire. By the time it was contained in September 2016, it had burned more than 46,000 acres.

When people think of the government’s response to wildfires, they often think of the fire department, emergency services teams, and law enforcement. But there’s much more to a major response than that. In the case of the Chimney fire, there were 105 assisting agencies. At the same time, almost every County department responded or served people who were impacted by the fire in some way.

At the height of the fire, evacuation orders affected more than 5,500 people in northern areas of San Luis Obispo County, including Christmas Cove, Oak Shores, North Shore Boat and Ski, Laguna Vista, South Shore Village, Rancho Del Lago, Cal Shasta, Lake San Antonio, Sapaqua Valley and Bryson Hesperia.

Nearly 50 residences and 21 other minor structures were destroyed, but there was only one reported injury. There were no fatalities, and firefighters were able to prevent the fire from engulfing Hearst Castle, though it came within two miles of the historic site.

The fire started and worsened for a variety of reasons, according to County Fire officials. When the fire started, the County was in the midst of a five-year extreme drought, which led to extreme dry conditions. At the same time, the entire area affected by the fire hadn’t burned since the 1960s, which meant that there was a lot of brush to burn. Additionally, there was extremely dry air in the region at the time. All of these elements combined to create the perfect conditions for a long and wide burn.

However, the number of injuries, accidents, and claims for this complex incident was low considering the number of personnel assigned and the number of acres burned. This was a direct reflection of the dedication and professionalism of all personnel assigned to the task at hand.

Preserving Communications for County Response Teams

chimney fireJust two days after the Chimney Fire started, the California Office of Emergency Services notified the County that the fire would most likely reach the County’s Rocky Butte communications site within the next week. Rocky Butte provides primary radio communications capabilities for the County Sheriff’s Office, County Fire Department, and other County radio systems for the North Coast and Nacimiento Lake area. Without this site, first responders in the area would have had poor to no radio coverage.

To address this serious issue, the County Information Technology team worked with Sheriff’s Office to identify Rocky Butte as critical infrastructure and requested the appropriate resources to protect it however possible.

Just four days after the blaze started, the County received another blow: commercial power service to Rocky Butte was going to be disconnected. The team had to act quickly, starting the backup power generator that would have to hold for six days until commercial power was restored.

Soon, the Chimney Fire had made it to the Rocky Butte communications site. The County’s IT team traveled to the site to assess the damage. When the assessment team approached the site, they came upon hundreds of fire personnel and dozens of engines and trucks protecting the area.

By the time the County IT team had arrived, the Chimney Fire had burned right up to the communications site. Every few minutes, aircraft flew overhead and dropped fire retardant to the left and right of the surrounding areas.

“The fire crews in the area did nothing short of an amazing job protecting (Rocky Butte),” said County Information Technology Supervisor Vahram Havandjian. “Santa Barbara County Fire engine E313 was at our site with a crew and water hoses pressurized and ready to keep any other small area fires at bay. We cannot express our gratitude and thanks for all the excellent work that went into protecting this critical facility. Losing the site would have cost the County over one million dollars. Even more importantly, loss of communications could endanger the lives of those fighting the fires and the livelihood of those people living in the affected areas.”

Health Agency Response to the Chimney Fire

During the Chimney Fire, the County Health Agency managed public health and medical response activities.

The agency ensured environmental health and safety, provided support to mass care operations, collected and disseminated situational status information, provided mental health support to evacuees returning home, and provided health information to the public.

The Health Agency’s response to the Chimney Fire was more comprehensive, particularly in environmental health activities, than in previous fire responses.

Here are just some of the activities the County Health Agency participated in during the Chimney Fire:

  • Animal Services officers assisted in evacuating animals from properties in the affected area.
  • Animal Services staff established a small animal housing and care area in conjunction with the American Red Cross evacuation shelter at Flamson Middle School.
  • Public Health nurses and staff provided evacuated families at the shelter with diapers and other baby supplies as well as some children’s clothing.
  • Public Health Officer Dr. Penny Borenstein coordinated with the Air Pollution Control District to monitor air quality and issue guidance to at risk populations.
  • The Public Health Department provided guidance online and delivered important fact sheets to residents of fire damaged areas about air quality, environmental hazards and precautions concerning their water wells, propane tanks, and how to safely clean up structure fire debris.
  • The Public Health Department participated in a community meeting for residents affected by the fire by answering questions and providing guidance about fire debris cleanup and recovery efforts.
  • Public Health staff attended daily cooperating agency meetings hosted by the fire incident management team. Staff attend the meetings to get the latest information on fire activity and to coordinate response activities with other involved agencies.
  • As part of the interdisciplinary damage assessment team that inspected the affected areas, Environmental Health Services staff members assessed household hazardous waste, damaged water wells and swimming pools.
  • Environmental Health Services staff also conducted sanitation and food safety inspections at the Red Cross evacuation shelter and two fire camps.
  • Emergency Medical Services teams monitored impacts to healthcare providers, including ambulance providers, hospitals and potentially affected residential care facilities.
  • Emergency Medical Services teams also provided daily situation reports to healthcare partners to keep local and state agencies informed about fire activity affecting the healthcare system.
  • Public Health Emergency Preparedness managers and staff supported the Red Cross shelter by providing privacy screens for shelter clients.
  • Public Health Emergency Preparedness managers and staff also sent two Medical Reserve Corps volunteers to assist the Red Cross in providing medical services to shelter clients.

Even after the incident, the County provided support to people affected by the blaze.

Cooperative Efforts

Chimney Fire CoordinationSan Luis Obispo County is very large and no one emergency response agency can do it all. That is why cooperative efforts are essential in response to emergencies like wildland (such as the Chimney Fire) and structure fires, floods, earthquakes, hazardous material spills, and medical aids in the region.

Because of these cooperative efforts, people may have seen fire engines and firefighters from different agencies at the scene. This saves a considerable amount of money, while leaving local control to the counties’, cities’, and districts’ governing boards and communities.

These agreements eliminate duplicate services, giving CAL FIRE the ability to provide dispatch, paramedic, fire, and rescue services in most of the communities in San Luis Obispo County at a tremendous discount to taxpayers.

CAL FIRE currently has agreements to provide fire protection with Avila Beach Community Services District, Los Osos Community Services District, the City of Pismo Beach, and the unincorporated areas of San Luis Obispo County.

Therefore, County Fire / CAL FIRE SLO serves as the dispatch center for the following agencies:

  • Cambria Fire Protection District
  • Camp Roberts Fire Department
  • Cayucos Fire Protection District
  • Morro Bay Fire Department
  • San Miguel Fire Protection District
  • Santa Margarita Fire Department
  • Templeton Fire and Emergency Services

If there is an emergency or disaster that exceeds local resources, local fire agencies have a formal agreement called the Mutual Aid Program to lend assistance across jurisdictional boundaries when requested.

At the same time, County Fire is a member of the State of California Office of Emergency Services (OES) Mutual Aid System. In an event of an emergency, the local agency requests mutual aid companies to assist them with their incident, e.g., earthquakes, fires, rescues HAZ MAT, terrorist events and floods.

Automatic Aid provides and/or receive assistance from the closest available resource, irrespective of municipal boundaries.

The initial response of resources is referred to as a first alarm. It is a prearranged first-alarm response per a definite plan by geographical area. The aid must be provided 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The aid must offset a need in the community.

For example, if a community needs a ladder company and the fire department does not have one, but a neighboring community’s ladder company responds by automatic-aid agreement.