More than a dozen individuals found shelter in the gym of Dos Pueblos High School on Monday night as the Alisal Fire forced evacuations in the area of El Capitan State Beach and closed a portion of Highway 101 and Amtrak rails in north county.
About 18 people sought shelter at Dos Pueblos High School overnight Monday, many of whom had been evacuated off an Amtrak train that was headed to stops in northern Santa Barbara County and San Luis Obispo. The temporary shelter was set up by the American Red Cross Pacific Coast Chapter.
Passengers on the Amtrak train told the News-Press on Tuesday that they were directed to the shelter after their train returned to Santa Barbara as a result of the Alisal Fire burning in close proximity to the Highway 101 and the railroad tracks. The train returned to Santa Barbara shortly after pulling out of the station Monday, according to passengers.
The fire, which began on Monday afternoon near Alisal Reservoir, had burned around 2,000 acres as of 9 p.m. Monday night, but swelled to about 6,000 acres by Tuesday morning. On Monday, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office ordered evacuations for the areas of Refugio, Tajiguas, Arroyo Quemada, Arroyo Hondo and El Capitan Beach State Park, including the campground.
A few campers parked their RVs in the Dos Pueblos High School parking lot overnight, while passengers from the train slept on fold-out cots in the high school’s gym. A few other campers who evacuated from the El Capitan campground were able to relocate to the campground at Carpinteria State Beach, according to Jessica Hodge, the disaster program manager with the American Red Cross Central California Region.
Passengers on the Amtrak train headed north on Monday evening had the option to either return to Los Angeles on a southbound train or stay in the area overnight with the hopes of getting up to the north county by Tuesday. Originally, Amtrak tried booking hotels for passengers but directed them to the Dos Pueblos shelter when they found out all area hotel rooms were full.
Fortunately, all of the Amtrak passengers who stayed overnight were taken to the Amtrak station in Santa Barbara late Tuesday morning, where they were then given transportation to their destinations, Ms. Hodge said.
Among the more than a dozen folks who stayed overnight at Dos Pueblos was Noelia Villarreal, a former resident of Santa Barbara County who was visiting the area from Texas. She was headed north on the Amtrak train Monday evening to help out with training at a dental practice in Santa Maria where she used to work.
She said that she first heard of the fire when the train captain announced that the Amtrak train would be returning to the station in Santa Barbara as a result of the blaze. When asked what was going through her mind when she heard the announcement, Ms. Noelia said the captain had very calm communication, which helped to keep passengers at ease.
Spending the night in the shelter at Dos Pueblos inspired a desire to serve, Ms. Villarreal told the News-Press, adding that she plans to look into volunteer opportunities with the American Red Cross when she returns to Texas.
“This is my first experience ever having to be evacuated from anywhere,” Ms. Villarreal said. “But where I live in San Antonio, we’ve had people come from Houston and Louisiana with those hurricanes. So the experience of doing something like this (and) being in this situation is something I never thought of, so I’m going to go back and see about volunteering with the Red Cross.”
Another Amtrak passenger, Nancy Ochs, was aboard the Monday evening train headed to her home in San Luis Obispo. She ended up staying at the Dos Pueblos shelter overnight with hopes of getting home Tuesday.
After arriving at Dos Pueblos around 10:30 p.m. on Monday, Ms. Ochs said the American Red Cross provided everyone with cots and blankets for the night.
“All the Red Cross people are really, really quite nice,” Ms. Ochs told the News-Press.
As of late Tuesday morning, all of the overnight guests had vacated the shelter, Ms. Hodge told the News-Press. She said that the shelter remains open, but could be put on standby by the county if evacuation orders are lifted.
Dos Pueblos has served as a reference point and shelter place during numerous fires over the years, high school principal Bill Woodard told the News-Press on Tuesday.
“We’ve done this many times over the years with fire, so we’re happy to help,” Mr. Woodard said.