USA — In what officials worry could be a harbinger of another dangerous fire season, a predawn brush fire in a canyon southeast of Rockaway Beach forced the evacuation of some 80 homes in the gully and up along the southern rim. Grady Leaver, who lives in the Seacrest townhome complex on a ridge off Fassler Avenue, awoke not long after 4 a.m. to the sound of a policeman banging on his door, telling him and his wife to get out.
“We looked out the window and it was just red, like it was painted on the window,” said Leaver, 70. “And then I walked up to the window and looked down and I saw a strip of flames running down the canyon.”
Firefighters were able to contain the six-alarm blaze by around 7:30 a.m., and residents began returning to their homes half an hour later. No injuries or property damage were reported.
But seeing a fast-moving brush fire in January in Pacifica, where fog typically keeps vegetation from getting too dry, is a sobering way to begin 2015, said Scott McLain, spokesman for Cal Fire. A historically wet December gave way to a bone-dry January, and the rest of the winter is shaping up to be mild, he said.
“As of today we’re looking at the same conditions as 2014,” said McLain, adding last year’s fire season was the worst since 2008.
California has seen more than 50 wildland fires since Jan. 1, McLain said, down a bit from the same period last year. Cal Fire has added 25 engines in Northern California and 47 engines in Southern California to its usual staffing to prepare for a busier than normal winter. On Saturday, there were five separate wildland fires in Eldorado National Forest near Lake Tahoe, McLain said.
“We don’t expect to see that type of thing until late summer,” he said of the Eldorado fires, which totaled about 60 acres.
The cause of the Pacifica fire, which scorched 10 acres, is under investigation. About 60 firefighters responded to the blaze, said Clyde Preston, spokesman for the fire authority.
“The real challenge to this fire is we have steep terrain in the canyon, the moderate to heavy fuels burning and the 10-15 mph winds that are really driving this fire down the hill,” Preston said early Monday morning before the fire was contained.
Most of the 90 or so people who were evacuated lived on Fassler Avenue and Rockaway Beach Avenue, which runs about halfway up the canyon and dead-ends in a cul-de-sac. About 55 residents took shelter at the Pacifica Community Center on Crespi Drive.
Garber, Leaver and several other neighbors convened at a nearby Starbucks, where they shared information gleaned from their phones and car radios. They were all relieved to learn their homes and possessions weren’t destroyed.
“We just didn’t know when we left what we’d find when we returned,” Leaver said.