River Fire Aug. 19

Donald Payton, left, stands with Cal Fire information officer April Newman as she shows him a map of the fire. Payton was trying to decide whether to evacuate his Corral de Tierra home, which is currently outside the evacuation zone. 

Donald Payton stood outside the Cal Fire command center at Toro Park, a rolled map in his hand, and waited patiently for someone to help him. The information on that map, showing the scope of The River Fire sparked by lightning on Aug. 16 and fed by dry conditions and extreme heat, was already a day old, and Payton needed fresh information because he had a decision to make: Stay in the home he built with his own hands deep in Corral de Tierra, or grab his wife and their dogs and get out.

Cal Fire public information officer April Newman, here to staff the fire from Riverside, pulled up a fresh map on a laptop, punched in Payton's home address and showed him where the fire was in relation to his 40-year-old house, and laid out the facts.

"I would recommend having a bag ready to go," Newman told him, "but you're still outside the zone."

He nodded. "We are," he said. And as he walked away, he said, "I feel so sorry for other people."

It's day three of The River Fire, which sparked at the top of Mt. Toro and ate its way across the hills, expanding to more than 10,000 acres and threatening more than 1,500 homes as of Wednesday morning, and reaching the ridgeline along the hills above River Road.

At night, the fire's glow is visible for miles, and dozens of people park along the shoulders of Spreckels Boulevard and River Road in the dark, cell phones out to photograph and record the scene.

While residents of the corridor, including those living in Las Palmas and Indian Springs, have been under an evacuation warning for two days, today that warning became an order: Get your stuff and get out. Across Highway 68, in Toro Park Estates, an evacuation warning is in effect, and there's so much smoke in the air that a local evacuation shelter at Toro Park School was moved to Laguna Seca. 

A steady stream of cars and trucks flowed down River Road Wednesday afternoon, some pulling trailers loaded with belongings. At Mo's River Road Grill, weary residents sat outside at tables, ordering burgers and pizza, while plotting their next move. One woman, who asked not to give her name because she didn't want people to know her Indian Springs home was empty, says conflicting information and crashing government websites has made it difficult to make a decision. Then the decision was made for her with today's order. 

"The best information we've received has come from talking to our neighbors," she says. "It's an amazing community, very supportive of each other, and people we might not see regularly are engaging in genuine conversations. It's been beautiful.

"But the idea that it might disappear," she adds, "is gut-wrenching."

The current plan for her and her husband is to stay with friends who live on the other side of Highway 68—in the Toro Park Estates. If the evacuation warning for that neighborhood becomes an order, they'll drive to Palo Alto and stay with their children.

Earlier on Wednesday, Monterey County Sheriff Steve Bernal held a short press conference outside the Cal Fire command post, and laid out the realities. If there's an evacuation order, they really want you to go. If you refuse, they may ask for your next of kin.

And if you don't need to be out in the area, if you're there just out of curiosity, please don't come out. 

"I was in the Las Palmas-Union Springs area on River Road last night from about 8 o'clock to 11 o'clock and it got very congested in the subdivision areas," he said. "It's not safe for people driving parking and driving and for emergency vehicles if they need to get through there.

"When there's an evacuation order we ask you don't stay," Bernal said. "We have had people refuse and if you stay, it puts your life at risk and it puts first responders' lives at risk."

Sheriff's deputies, aided by officers from numerous other police agencies, including Del Rey Oaks and CSU Monterey Bay, will patrol neighborhoods under evacuation order to make sure empty homes aren't burglarized or vandalized.

Further down on River Road, at Vision Quest Ranch and Monterey Zoological, owner Charlie Sammut and his team were discussing whether or not they would evacuate what animals they could. Sammut said he didn't think it would be necessary—the zoo's elephants and big cats have burn-proof nighttime enclosures, with separate water sources, and Sammut and several team members plan on staying with the animals if evacuation comes necessary. 

A bigger worry than the fire, he says, is a possible loss of electrical power. At any time, Sammut has about 3,000 pounds of raw meat on hand to feed the carnivores at the zoo. While he had generators installed on Tuesday, on Wednesday he was making plans to store at least some of the meat offsite in case power got cut. 

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(1) comment

Chris Barlow

Up until this week, I generally thought that the expression ‘bad times bring out the best in people’ was more of a cliche than something that actually gets put into widespread practice. But this week I have seen so many examples of friends and neighbors going out of their way to help out people in need that it has given me a whole new understanding of this amazing community, which can be beautiful and inspiring even when shrouded in hideous brown smoke.

So please be understanding and helpful towards the huge number of people that have been impacted by this inferno. Even when the bad news is just overwhelming, there’s nothing more effective in fighting feelings of fear and powerlessness than simply lending a hand and thereby becoming an active part of the solution.

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