Travis Craig, a fire captain with Cal Fire SLO, was in Monterey County covering a routine helicopter shift on July 22.
Then, in a flash, nothing about the shift was routine.
A fire ignited by an abandoned campfire in Garrapata State Park had engulfed the Carmel Highlands. Craig was one of the first responders to the incident.
Now, nearly two weeks later, Craig is still on the fire’s frontlines but is joined by 5,521 additional emergency responders, waging war on the Soberanes Fire, one of California’s worst wildfires this year.
A perfect storm of hot, dry weather and flammable, drought-stressed forestry allowed the blaze to rip through 46,000 acres of land—an area larger than the city of San Francisco—while destroying 57 houses and causing the death of a dozer operator.
And it’s not over. The Soberanes Fire is only 25 percent contained as of Aug. 3. It continues to move southeast through the Los Padres National Forrest towards SLO County.
Fire crews are having significant trouble navigating the rugged terrain to set control lines and slow the fire down.
“The access has been very difficult,” Craig told New Times via phone on Aug. 1 after completing a 24-hour shift. “The steepness and thick brush make it difficult for fire crews to get the upper hand. Some of the backcountry you just can’t get to.”
Craig is serving as a division group supervisor for the northern portion of the fire—one of the zones that’s been successfully contained by a perimeter. He suspects he will be relocated soon to the south, where crews are working on building a control line ahead of the fire.
“We have a very good plan in place.” Craig said. “We’re going to build a big fire line 50 to 60 miles in front of the fire, north of Nacimiento Road. If the weather holds, it will continue burning in that direction.”
Three base camps have been set up for the firefight: One near Salinas, one in the Carmel Valley, and one down in Big Sur.
“They’re like small towns,” Craig said of the camps. “Fighting a fire of this size is probably a lot like a military operation. There’s a lot of logistical coordination.”
Both personnel and infrastructure from SLO County are proving to be instrumental to the fight.
The Paso Robles Airport is playing a critical role as a hub for air tankers bringing fire retardant to the area. Retardant can hold a wildfire’s spread at bay for up to two hours.
Roughly 135 SLO County responders are on the Soberanes Fire frontlines. Cal Fire SLO has two strike teams of inmate hands crews, one five-engine strike team, two dozers, a communication unit, and a mobile kitchen unit. A Cal Fire Tuolumne/Calaveras strike team is currently covering SLO County’s fire needs, according to Cal Fire SLO.
City fire departments are also battling the Soberanes Fire, sending one five-engine strike team comprised of responders from SLO city, Morro Bay, Cayucos, Atascadero, and Five Cities Fire.
Bringing the Soberanes Fire to an end will be a slog. The latest Cal Fire press release estimates that 100 percent containment won’t occur until Aug. 31.
“It’s going to be a long haul,” Craig said.