- Photo By Chris Mcguinness
- FIRE SEASON The Alamo Fire has burned more than 28,000 acres in a rural area east of Santa Maria. The blaze threatened 133 structures and sparked evacuations of some residents.
There's a slight smell of smoke in the air as Fran Spencer and one of her friends sit on the concrete bench outside the Minami Community Center in Santa Maria.
Both women are evacuees, forced to pack up what they could in their cars and flee their homes as firefighters work to get a handle on the Alamo Fire, a large blaze burning east of Santa Maria. Spencer said she wasn't surprised when she got an automated reverse-911 call on July 8 telling her to evacuate her home.
"I was waiting for it. I could see the big puffs of smoke," Spencer told New Times.
She packed up what she could, mostly photographs and a bag of clothes from her dryer, and left with her family. Two days later, Spencer was passing the time at the center, now a Red Cross shelter, talking to her friends, reading the local newspaper, and calling neighbors for news about the fire and their property, where her husband chose to stay along with chickens, peacocks, a donkey, and other animals they weren't able to evacuate.
"It's an overwhelming feeling," Spencer said.
The Alamo Fire began July 6 along Highway 166 near the east end of Twitchell Reservoir. The fire spread due to the area's rugged land and an abundance of dry brush.
"The fire is burning in a very steep and inaccessible terrain," Cal Fire SLO Unit Chief Scott Jalbert said at a July 9 press conference. "Our firefighters are experiencing very dangerous and critical fire behavior."
By July 10, the fire had spread to an estimated 28,926 acres and was just 15 percent contained. The fire prompted a massive response from Cal Fire, which deployed more than 2,000 personnel and 48 fire crews to fight the blaze that threatened 133 homes in the area, including Spencer's. At least three homes have been destroyed by the fire, according to officials.
This isn't the first time Spencer has been forced to flee a wildfire. As a young girl, Spencer was evacuated from the Coyote Fire in 1964, which charred more than 67,000 acres in the hills of Santa Barbara County and destroyed more than 100 structures. She said the experience stayed with her so much that she began keeping boxes of important family photos near her bed. When she got the call to leave due to the Alamo Fire, those boxes went with her to the evacuation center.
"You load up the boxes and here we go again," Spencer said.
While most individuals within the evacuation area left, a small number of others chose to stay despite the risks.
"Everybody evacuated except for about three or four of us," said Fred Lang, who lives on a property on Tepusquet Road.
Lang appeared at ease as he stood near the intersection of Tepusquet Road and Highway 166 on July 10, chatting with fire and law enforcement personnel, who now outnumber the actual residents of the area. He said he chose to stay because his property has a 25,000-gallon water tank, on-site fire hydrants, and heavy equipment, including a bulldozer.
"There's no way my place is going to burn because I'm prepared for it," Lang said.
Whether they chose to stay or leave, residents in the path of the Alamo Fire have at least one thing in common: All they can do is wait as the fire continues to burn and the fire crews work to extinguish the blaze. As of July 12, containment of the Alamo Fire had increased to 65 percent. Fire officials lifted the evacuation order that same day, but warned residents returning to their homes to be careful and stay vigilant of fire conditions. Δ