By Rachel Barnes
A nearly 100-acre brush fire behind Cal Poly University Tuesday afternoon forced the evacuation of about 1,400 students who fled their dorms carrying their school supplies and valuables.
The fire started about 3 p.m. in the mountains behind two dorms near Grand Avenue and what is known as the “Poly P,” which remains in tact.
Billowing smoke from the blaze could be seen from the Cuesta College campus and flames were visible from Highway 1. Thick smoke hovered over downtown.
The fire, which began at only 2 acres, quickly spread toward the buildings, prompting university officials to mandate an evacuation at Sierra Madre and Yosemite dorms.
According to Max Sands, a first-year business administration major at Cal Poly, students received a text message from Poly Alert around 3:30 p.m.
“At the very beginning, you could see [the fire] about 100 yards away,” Sands said.
Students were instructed to check in at Mott Gym on campus. Many then flooded downtown hotels, looking for a place for the evening.
The Grand Avenue entrance to Cal Poly was closed to allow access for emergency vehicles, backing up rush hour traffic for miles.
More than 100 firefighters and several air tankers quickly responded to the scene to “box in” and contain the blaze before it spread closer to the dorms, said Chris Elms, the public information officer for Cal Fire.
By about 4:30 p.m., officials said the fire began to change direction and move away from the campus.
“We haven’t gotten containment on it yet, so it’s going to be a while,” Elms said, regarding how long they foresee the fire being active.
By 7 p.m., the blaze was about 20 percent contained, officials said, adding that they had not seen any “explosive growth” at that time.
Firefighters stayed through the evening to extinguish hotspots so the blaze would not reignite.
The evacuation order and road closures were lifted as of 8 p.m., officials said.
The cause of the fire is under investigation, officials said, adding that they would like to speak with anyone who was present at the time it started. Cal Fire can be reached at (805) 543-4244.