David Middlecamp THE TRIBUNE
‘It’s wicked out there.’ How Paso Robles airport helped crews fighting Big Sur fires
September 12, 2020
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  • Climate change is here.

    No longer the realm of esoteric reports or theoretical projections, it is now a part of easily observable experience.

    Temperatures have been rising in the past few years, and they’ve recently hit record heights. On Sept. 6, Cal Poly recorded a new heat record for San Luis Obispo: 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

    More than once this year, the ash-filled skies made the San Luis Obispo County landscape look Mars — the sun an orange disc at mid-day.

    Our region, once associated with blue skies, sold license plate frames that said ‘San Luis Obispo, come up for air.”

    Due to multiple fires, we had some of the worst air quality in the world in August. And all national forests are currently closed to the public in California.

    With wildfires burning throughout the West, from Montana to New Mexico, California is experiencing the worst fire season ever recorded.

    Five of the 10 all-time worst fires in the state are burning now.

    As of Friday, 3.1 million acres had burned in California, according to Cal Fire. That is roughly half the size of New Hampshire, or New Jersey.

    The number will grow larger. Fire season is far from over and many major fires are far from containment.

    In California, 20 people have died due to wildfires and almost 4,000 structures have been destroyed, according to Cal Fire. Firefighting crews are strained beyond their capacity and managers desperately try to locate resources.

    In San Luis Obispo County, we have seen the cities of Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo threatened by flames in recent months.

    Paso Robles lost two homes in the River Fire, likely sparked by weed abatement in the Salinas River riverbed.

    The Pond fire burned almost 2,000 acres near Creston.

    As of Friday, the Dolan Fire near Big Sur had burned 113,486 acres and was 26% contained.

    Much of the water in California originates in our national forest watersheds. Nacimento, San Antonio, Santa Margarita and Lopez lakes all are fed by Los Padres National Forest lands.

    The solutions are complicated but failing to address climate change will be more costly than doing nothing.

    Those costs will be felt in loss of life, property, the toll on first responders, infrastructure repair, air conditioning bills, insurance costs and the type of environment we hand over to the next generation.

    A little more than 20 years ago, firefighting still relied on World War II-era technology with propeller-driven air tankers. California Youth Authority at one time operated a youth correctional facility in Paso Robles.

    Jennifer Knight wrote this story with extra reporting provided by Associated Press on Sept. 18, 1999.


    On a dry, blustery day, two FAA air traffic controllers wearing Hawaiian shirts and holding binoculars stand atop a makeshift tower watching a P-2V air tanker climb into the air. The tanker’s payload is 800 gallons of sticky pink fire retardant that will be dropped on the front lines of fires raging in the wilds of Big Sur.

    So far, the two fires in the Los Padres Forest area near Big Sur have consumed more than 17,400 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry.

    “They’re flying people out there and having to turn them around. It’s wicked out there,” said Mike Graves, fire captain with the California Department of Forestry in Paso Robles.

    By late Friday afternoon, Paso Robles Airport, which usually handles smaller private aircraft, was transformed into one of the U.S. Department of Forestry’s deployment stations for large air tankers. (The agency is now known as the U.S. Forest Service.)

    Over the last week — since lightning-ignited fires flared in the national forest Sept. 8 — nine planes have made the airport home, making seven to eight drops a day, Graves said.

    “It gets so smoky, you can’t see part of the time,” said Greg Hock, one of the pilots waiting to deploy his Lockheed SP2H for the tenth time this week.

    The fires, fueled by wind, dry chaparral, pine and underbrush have been difficult for hand crews because of the steep terrain and unpredictable weather, said Larry German, a CDF spokesman.

    “I’m sure they’d like to get a handle on this as quick as possible, but this is not going to be over for two to three more days,” German said.

    Fire personnel and equipment were concentrated in the larger northern fire in the Kirk Complex area, about 35 miles southeast of Carmel. The fire that’s scorched some 15,000 ares in that area was 40% contained by late Friday.

    Seventeen agencies and 1,425 firefighters — some from San Luis Obispo County — were working to knock down the blazes.

    Through coordinated efforts of state and local fire crews, equipment has been brought in from all over the nation to fight the blaze. Among the arsenal are 12 bulldozers, six air tankers, 11 helicopters, 25 fire engines and 36 hand crews.

    Two of those crews are from the California Youth Authority’s fire team.

    The group of 31 boys aged 17 through 20 were eager to go even though they have been toiling in 24-hour shifts, said one of their leaders.

    “They can’t wait to get out there,” said Tim Barkas, a youth correctional counselor at CYA.

    “They’re excited about being able to leave the institution. They take pride in the fact that they are able to help the community.”

    To the south of the Kirk Complex, some 15 miles away from the larger fire, is another blaze that has burned 2,493 acres. That fire was only 1% contained by Friday.

    The fear is that the two fires will eventually burn together, said Alan Queoff, a firefighter from Santa Barbara County.

    The last major fire in this area was in 1977. The Marble Cone fire burned over 100,000 acres and took about 3 1/2 weeks to extinguish.