Soberanes fire affects CHS, community at large

The Soberanes fire has burned a total of 91,100 acres and reached a containment level of 60 percent since its ignition July 22, as reported by Cal Fire on Aug. 26, while impacting the surrounding community in several different regards, one being the lives of CHS students.

As of the Aug. 26 update, Cal Fire no longer had unified command of the fire due to its spreading into Los Padres National Forest, and control of the fire had been turned over to the United States Forest Service.

In various ways, the fire has affected several CHS students, such as senior Dylan Palafox, who has experienced fires before and was asked to evacuate due to the fire being across the highway from his home.

“The [sheriff] drove up to my house and told us we had to evacuate, but we signed our rights to stay,” recalls Palafox, who, along with other students, was forced to find another place to stay when Highway 1 was closed as a result of the fire.carmel-valley-firefighter-mike-vout-stands-looking-out-at-the-fire-from-the-dozer-line-of-division-i-in-cachagua-aug-3

Aside from threat of evacuation and displacement, the fire has created problems with air quality, which raises particular concern for students with asthma, as school nurse Susan Pierszalowski points out.

Though no serious respiratory distress has occurred as a result of the fire, Pierszalowski explains that several students have come to use the air purifier available in the nurse’s office, with two students using it Aug. 11, three using it Aug. 12 and Aug. 15 and one using it Aug. 17.

One such student who has experienced an abnormal escalation in asthmatic activity due to the smoke from the Soberanes fire is senior Megan Gonzalez, who has dealt with severe asthma since the age of three.

“I had an asthma flare-up…[but] luckily I have medicine where I don’t need to be hospitalized,” says Gonzalez, who, in addition to her regular asthma medication dosage, has been taking emergency medication sporadically to accommodate for the poor air quality, particularly in the first few days after the fire’s outbreak.

According to Pierszalowski, air quality is monitored daily throughout the district and then emailed to coaches, physical education teachers and dance teachers by Marcie Garvin of Carmel Unified School District’s maintenance, operation and transportation department.

As athletic director Golden Anderson addresses, many CHS athletes have encountered canceled practices due to smoke, which has primarily affected football and both girls’ and boys’ water polo. Anderson explains that the air quality levels have been carefully observed throughout the day due to their fluctuation, which can change from hazardous in the morning to healthy in the early afternoon.

Some students have encountered the fire more directly, such as senior Will Blatnik, who helped to fight it for seven consecutive days, after first completing a course on fire safety and then signing a contract with Cal Fire, which authorized him to operate equipment, specifically bulldozers, on the front line.

“It was [very] different from the other fires I’ve been to… a lot more rugged terrain,” Blatnik recalls of the fire-fighting he did near Soberanes, the Carmel Highlands and the Rancho San Carlos Preserve.

In addition, many local firefighters have been placed on unusually draining shifts, requiring strange and extensive hours. Division chief Ron Lemos, who served on the frontline of the fire for 21 consecutive days, explains that some of the strike teams are comprised of 24 hours on and 24 hours off, while others rotate between on and off every 12 hours, though the shifts often run longer than intended.

“By the time you get back to base camp… it’s been 30 hours,” Lemos clarifies.

While many, like Lemos, have been fighting the fire directly, other firemen are required to man the station and deal with other 911 emergencies. Fire captain Dennis Hartshorn, paramedic engineer Andrew Askew and firefighter Eric Campbell are among such firemen, and had been working 10, 9 and 11 consecutive days, respectively, as of Aug. 21.

Hartshorn explains, “We don’t go home [because] it’s a state of emergency.”

The fire was started up near the Palo Colorado area, which meant that it started as the responsibility of the wildland firefighters.

“Our responsibility right now is the town… so we respond to mostly medical aid and structure fires around Carmel,” Askew notes.

Staying away from home has surely been difficult, but Campbell addresses the power of positive thinking during such strenuous periods: “We [have] to keep a positive attitude because if it starts going down, it affects everybody.”

Cal Fire does not expect full containment until the end of September.

-Melissa Pavloff