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Hearst Castle Has a Brush With California’s Wildfires

Curators were ready to evacuate the Hearst Estate, now a state park and museum full of priceless art, furniture and history

smithsonian.com

The Chimney Fire raging in California's San Luis Obispo County is only 39 percent contained. And at one point, the wildfire got as close as two miles to Hearst Castle, the famous state park and museum filled with priceless art and artifacts. But then on Tuesday, the blaze changed course and headed north, reports Corky Siemaszko at NBC News. Still, as of Wednesday afternoon, the 165-room hilltop castle remained "threatened," Cal Fire tells KSBW News

"A fire has never come this close before," state parks supervising ranger Robert Chambers told the Associated Press.

Firefighters and caretakers aren’t taking any chances with the mansion. The historic site will remain closed to tourists until Sunday. Instead of the usual visitor cars parked in the castle's lot, fire trucks have filled the spaces and fire-fighting air tankers are using the castle's private landing strip as a base of operations, Hailey Branson-Potts at The Los Angeles Times reports. The castle has kept its windows and doors closed to prevent smoke damage and has an evacuation plan for its priceless antiques if the fire does threaten the structure, though officials will not share details for security reasons. Branson-Potts also says curators have a special cleaning method for refurbishing the mansion’s exterior marble if it gets damaged by soot.

Called La Cuesta Encantada, or Enchanted Hill, the mansion has been in the public eye since it was first designed by architect Julia Morgan and ​newspaper and media magnate William Randolph Hearst between 1919 and 1947. Now owned by the California State Parks system, the castle, which overlooks the Pacific and has 127 acres of gardens and manicured outdoor spaces, contains hundreds of pieces of furniture and art collected by Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies. Notable pieces include a third century Roman mosaic built into the floor, statues from Egypt’s New Dynasty, and a 17th-century painting of Neptune by Simon Vouet

Curators hope the danger to the mansion has passed, but Siemaszko says the Chimney Fire has been particularly challenging for firefighters. “This fire ... has had an interesting setup in that we have lots of different microclimates going on around the fire,” fire captain Larry Kurtz tells NBC. “Winds that occur down in the southern area of the fire are different from what's in the northern end of the fire. Plus, as the day progresses, we get what's called 'sundowner' winds, and that makes the winds shift.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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