Pulling hose

Harlan Winkle has a high opinion of Cal Fire, especially after he drove deep into the back hills of his 800-acre ranch on Monday and saw smoke and fire just over a distant hill. He saw that firefighters had drawn a line with their bodies and hand tools and ultimately kept the onrushing flames from cresting the tree-covered ridge and then racing down into a clearing where his cattle were.

“They did one heck of a job,” he said of the response to the blaze that would be dubbed the Cienega Fire. “It was amazing to see how many people and how much equipment they had up here.”

Where there was previously a narrow dirt road threading its way up the sides of steep grades on Sunday, by Monday night, Cal Fire bulldozers had graded over three miles of double-lane road to reach the rugged area where the fire had already charred some 45 acres.

“My family has owned this ranch since the 1800s,” Winkle said, “and I’ve grown walnuts for years down in the valley. This is rugged country up here and pretty much overgrown. I drove over where the fire burned the hills and saw ground I’ve never seen before. None of it is fenced, so that might be a problem (with the cattle) later if it rains and starts to grow.”

On Wednesday morning it appeared that most of the firefighting crews were extinguishing scattered hotspots and there were only faint wisps of smoke coming from the thick trees. Jonathan Pangburn, Cal Fire unit information officer, said, however, that according to the latest update that he had received from the field, the fire had spread to 600 acres and was 60 percent contained.He said another update would be coming in later in the evening.

Pangburn said one firefighter had suffered a knee injury and that the cause of the fire was still under investigation. According to the update filed at 6:20 p.m. Wednesday, there were 525 personnel that comprised 14 crews at the scene, along with 56 fire engines, 15 bulldozers, five helicopters and seven water tenders. By Wednesday morning, the bulldozers were already leaving the area.

“As with most fires throughout the state, personnel come from all over,” Pangburn said. “We have resources from San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo, Tuolumne-Calaveras, Kern County, and of course, our local assets include two bulldozers, four crews, and 10 engines from our Cal Fire San Benito-Monterey Unit.”

He said the fire was challenging because of the remoteness and steep, brush-covered terrain.

“The biggest challenge was access because in this particular area there weren’t a lot of roads directly into where the fire was,” Pangburn said. “We had quite a few operational resources there the first day it was burning, but it took a while to get in. For a while the firefighting effort was mainly with air tankers and helicopters trying to slow it down.”

He said after many years of drought the brush was extremely flammable; more so than any other year in recent memory. Over the past three days, crews were able to get into the area where they were able to contain the fire, for the most part.

“The weather today, so far, is cooperating,” Pangburn said Wednesday. “It’s slightly cooler, significantly higher relative humidity. The only major concern we have at this point is the potential forecast of lightning.”

Yellow and orange uniforms could be seen along the smoldering hills and blackened trees Wednesday. The yellow-clad crews were Cal Fire, and those in orange were low-risk inmates from numerous conservation camps operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

“We have a joint program between CDCR and Cal Fire where they are fire crews,” he said. “When not on an incident they do conservation projects. Our local camp is Gavilan, which is near Soledad. They work all over the Monterey Peninsula, and locally they work in Bolado Park and the (county) Historical Park.”

The program is set up to allow the inmates to serve society and as fire crews. 

“They go to a modified version of hand-crew firefighting tactics,” Pangburn said. “It’s not a full-fledged firefighting academy. They’re not trained on structural firefighting, but they are trained on the proper use of hand tools, fire behavior and safety.”

There are approximately 130 inmate firefighters and several Norco corrections officers brought 25 inmates along with seven days of supplies, including food, water, ice and medical kits.

“This is actually a great opportunity for these people,” one officer said. “Most come from gangs and have never worked together with other races. We took some up to fight a fire in a national forest and for some of them it was the first time they had ever seen a forest or wildlife. This program has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the system. They know they’re being given a second chance and they don’t want to mess it up.”

As they drove out of the area, Cal Fire crews saw signs on fences and homes along the way thanking them.

John Chadwell worked as a feature, news and investigative reporter for BenitoLink on a freelance basis for seven years, leaving the role in Sept. 2023. Chadwell first entered the U.S. Navy right out of...