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Santa Margarita-area fire now only smoldering

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A fire that began 10 miles east of Santa Margarita on June 20, and quickly spread to 1,800 acres along the Parkhill Road area, was all but extinguished by firefighters as of June 24.

The fire started at 2:31 p.m. on June 20 after an unknown vehicle’s exhaust system released a piece of carbon onto the dry roadside in front of Las Pilitas Nursery on Las Pilitas Road, according to Steve Reeder, deputy chief of CalFire’s San Luis Obispo County division.

“It’s kind of like a clogged artery, it just kinds of builds up, builds up, builds up, and then at some point has to break loose,” Reeder said.

The conditions at the time were rife for fire—temperatures were near 100 degrees, relative humidity was at a very low 7 percent, and winds were blowing about 10 miles per hour to the southeast, which carried the fire toward Parkhill Road.

The fire swept through hundreds of acres, destroying two homes, four mobiles homes, two RVs being used as residences, 10 outbuildings, and seven vehicles. There were four injuries reported and 109 properties lost power. Reeder said evacuation orders were issued to 72 properties, and of those, 33 were evacuated, 28 refused to leave, and nobody was home at 11 of them. California law says that people can’t be forced to evacuate. Six large animals and several smaller ones were also evacuated.

During the evacuation period, the San Luis Obispo Red Cross opened an evacuation center and hosted approximately 10 to 15 people at any given time, including two families who lost their homes, said Jessica Piffero, regional director of communications for the organization’s central California region.

By late afternoon on June 21, the fire was 50 percent contained, and evacuation orders were lifted at 5 p.m. As of press time on June 24, the fire was 95 percent contained, and firefighters were extinguishing hotspots as certain areas continued to smolder. They expected to fully contain the fire by the end of the day.

So far, the estimated cost of fighting the fire—not including property damage and lost homes—is $3.5 million. The response brought in 593 fire personnel from several local, state, and federal agencies.

Because of ongoing drought conditions, firefighting crews were given strict instructions as to where they could draw water during the emergency. While helicopters picked up water from the nearby lake, water tenders were told to only use water from the town of Santa Margarita if there was an immediate need. Instead, most of the water came from a private landowner on O’Donovan Road in the Creston area and the Atascadero Mutual Water Company.

“We knew that Santa Margarita is in a very critical situation with their water supply,” Reeder said.

While things are winding down, several people now have nowhere to live. Piffero said the local chapter of the Red Cross will be helping the families that lost their homes “set up the road to recovery to pick up the pieces.”

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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