Day 8: Chimney Fire threatens Hearst Castle, grows to 15,439 acres

Fire attack helicopters drop water on the southwestern front of the Chimney Fire.
Fire attack helicopters drop water on the southwestern front of the Chimney Fire.

Update 11:30 a.m.

As the Chimney Fire advances along its western edge toward Hearst Castle, Cal Fire has announced that it will lift evacuation orders at noon for several communities in the northeast section of the fire’s burn area.

The communities of Running Deer Ranch, including Tri-County, Cal-Shasta, Ranchos del Lago and South Shore Village, are private gated communities and are not open to the general public, according to a news release. Property owners and residents for that community are asked to carry a government-issued identification card, utility bill or some other similar form of identification showing an address within Running Deer Ranch.

The public is asked to avoid the area.

Update 10 a.m.

Hearst Castle, which is among the structures threatened by the Chimney Fire, canceled its tours Saturday morning, though the visitor center remains open for now. The center is 5 miles west of the Castle on Highway 1 near San Simeon.

District Superintendent Dan Falat said at 9 a.m. he estimated the Chimney Fire was between 3 and 4 miles away from the Castle.

The fire is now 15,439 acres and crossed Rocky Butte Ridge during the night, according to Cal Fire. There are 2,898 firefighting personnel, 14 helicopters and seven airtankers fighting the fire.

At least one strike team — five engines and 22 firefighters per team — has been assigned to Hearst Castle to protect the structure, said Mike Yule, division chief for the Santa Fe Springs Fire Department in Los Angeles. Yule is a spokesman for Cal Fire’s Chimney Fire effort.

The closure decision was based primarily on public safety, but also on the need to keep excess traffic off the steep, twisty, narrow access road from the visitor center to the hilltop.

“There’s been and will be a lot of shuttling of firefighters back and forth on that road,” Falat said in a phone interview. “We don’t want any additional traffic there.”

Castle fire protection now is fully integrated into the Cal Fire operation, Falat said. Castle officials and staffers put their contingency plans in place, and decisions are being made about which staff will stay on the hilltop and who will evacuate sooner rather than later.

Cal Fire spokesman Ron Oatman said 339 additional firefighters were working to contain the fire Saturday. A special crew is assessing operations at the Hearst Castle site Saturday, he said.

More resources were shifted to the west side of the fire, although some mop-up crews would continue work in the northeast region, Oatman said.

The current plan is to shelter the artwork in place, Falat said. That may change if the fire breaches current and planned containment lines.

There are contingency plans for moving some of the vast, 25,000-piece collection of artwork and artifacts “if it becomes absolutely necessary.” Even so, some pieces would be impossible to move, given constraints of size, weight, current placement and fragility, he said.

“At this point, we believe it’s better to leave the artwork in place than to move it,” Falat said. “Right now, we’re confident in the defensible space we’re created, and in our cooperation with Cal Fire and the resources that are there and will be arriving.”

He said staffers are continuing their previous work of strengthening clearance around the historic house museum and the grounds, extinguishing falling embers before they can start a spot fire, and focusing on protection of the monument.

For the time being, and as long as it is safe to do so, State Parks will keep the visitor center open, he said. Many visitors, not aware of the approaching wildfire, will show up for their tours, and state staff must be available to help them make other arrangements.

Meanwhile, Hearst Ranch staff has been preparing for the fire for days, according to Stephen Hearst, family heir and corporation vice president. There already have been fire impacts, he said in a phone interview, including the loss of the Fishburn cabin and damage to a family residence in the back country.

“There are 300 firefighters just on our place,” Hearst said. “The fire is creeping down Pine Mountain.”

Hearst has closed the ranch airstrip to private craft and opened it up to Cal Fire.

“There have been heroic efforts around the clock,” he said, referring to Cal Fire and Hearst’s own staffers.

While the fire threat isn’t immediate, he said, there’s a large amount of fire fuel between the fire and the Castle, and on the ranch.

“This fire is hungry,” he said. “And there’s plenty of food for it.”

Original story

Hearst Castle is among the structures threatened by the Chimney Fire burning near Nacimiento Lake, which gained an additional 2,500 acres Friday night, Cal Fire reported Saturday morning.

Winds blowing out of the east caused the fire to grow to 15,439 acres and cross Rocky Butte Ridge, according to Cal Fire.

Containment remained at 35 percent. Forty-six structures have been destroyed and seven damaged.

Although Hearst Castle is among the structures threatened, Cal Fire spokeswoman Emily Hjortstorp said no evacuations have been issued for the area.

“It’s just part of that ready, set, go,” she said.

Weather conditions on Saturday are expected to be hot and dry again, with temperatures in the 85- to 95-degree range, Hjortstorp said. Winds are expected to blow from the southwest, eventually reaching 10 to 15 mph during the afternoon, she said.

Creating additional containment lines along the southwest side of the fire and holding them will be firefighters’ primary objectives for the day, Hjortstorp said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27