The Highway 41 Fire took place in August, 1994.
It's the first time I've ever heard the Emergency Broadcast System actually used to broadcast an emergency. This morning KVEC 920AM is bragging about its non-stop coverage and generator-powered transmitter which allowed it to broadcast through power outages.
At one point just about every station was out. In fact at one point the only FM station on the air was the Voice of the Darkside, a pirate station just across the street from where the evacuation zone starts. It's powerful enough to beam to the whole city, so when people scanned through on their car stereos they'd likely run into Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," or Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House," or Dread Zeppelin's "Disco Inferno."
"I Burn For You... is that too tasteless?" asks the DJ of the moment of a Sting song.
Meanwhile, KVEC is reminding us proudly that we're the Top Story In The Nation, but when they switch over to ABC news, we rank behind some fire in Idaho and flooding in Florida in the Natural Disaster set, which in turn ranks behind a Democrat threat to force the Senate to work overtime to get the crime bill out. Lots of rhetoric about a funded Midnight Basketball program. When it finally gets to us, we're "a fire still burns out of control in central California. Officials say it was deliberately set."
Still, as of this morning, we're up to 41,500 acres and about 15 homes up in smoke. Asthmatics and such are being asked to stay indoors or head South to avoid the ash. Cal Poly is shut down, with the fire currently stopped about a mile away from campus. The residence halls on the East side of campus have been evacuated. This is all just up the street. I can see the campus from my window.
Mayor Peg Pinard just called in. "Can the mayor hold for just a moment. We need to switch to ABC news at the top of the hour." Then, realizing that this snub of the mayor might not have been a tactful move, "we'd hate to have the mayor cut off during such an important emergency proclamation, so we had better wait until after the news."
Woke up yesterday morning and stepped outside to bike to work and said out loud, "wow, it's gonna be a scorcher today." The day before was hot hot hot. But lo, what is this stormcloud splitting the sky? Oh, hey, that's no stormcloud. Where did that come from? It's dropping a lot of ash in town. Turns out it's a little 3,000 acre jobbie somewhere between Morro Bay and Atascadero. Oh, hope they get it out soon.
The news tells us that it was contained but that it "jumped containment," which is to say that "contained" is some sort of technical jargon which doesn't mean quite what it seems to mean. In any case, at least it's a little cooler under the smoke; it's as dense as cloud cover. The sun shines through as a red disc like a stoplight in the sky. The sunbeams are orange and the shadows are weird and the colors outside are weird, like in a parking lot under punctuated-spectrum lights where some cars glow in colors they've never had before and other cars dim to invisibility.
ABC news has downgraded us to a single sentence: "An arson fire in central California has chased hundreds of people from their homes."
The ash slows almost to a stop as the afternoon progresses, but the fire itself is getting much bigger, the ash is just being swept over the city to land somewhere else. By late afternoon you can see the flames from the city itself as it starts to jump over the range. By evening you can stand up by the guardrail and watch the fire jump the hills and start down toward the city. Some of the flames look like solar flares. You imagine what your silhouette would look like up on top of the range and the word "invisible" jumps to mind. Then you see a flame vault up into the smoke, dwarfing a nearby radio tower. Ouch.
Walking out the parking lot of the apartment complex where I live, you look across Grand Avenue and up to the right is Monterey Heights, which was evacuated at 3 a.m. this morning. If you look to the left you can see all the way up the street to Cal Poly. I didn't see any scorched brush there this morning, but last night the smoke billowing from behind the campus was glowing red. Things got hairy enough that I moved some things from my apartment to my car just in case.
It seems like just a few days ago that I looked around at all the crap in my apartment and thought "what would I save if there were a fire?" as a rhetorical exercise in deciding what was valuable and what was just being kept by force of habit. Turns out there's precious little I'd bust my ass to save.
"This table is covered with sandwiches and maps," say the news folks. They're looking for "Bald Mountain" because they've been reporting that the fire is heading there but they don't know where that is and they're getting dozens of calls from people asking where the hell this "Bald Mountain" is. They say they've found it on the map and it's near Lopez Lake. Lopez Lake is like on the other side of the world from Morro Bay. This thing had legs. Jeezus.
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