When the Santa Maria Elks acquired a large chunk of property on Highway 101 off Santa Maria Way in 1995, naturally they were thinking of things like rodeos - not housing a huge tent city of firefighters.
But last month, some
2,200 firefighters battling the 90,000-acre La Brea Fire east of Santa Maria turned the grounds into a small city - sleeping, eating, showering and doing laundry.
Along with tents for sleeping came fire trucks, large trailers for logistical support facilities, dining areas, even a helicopter base.
"It's worked out perfectly," said David Olson, public information officer with the Forest Service. "It's gone wonderfully well. It's a great place. There's a lot of space."
Officially, the 107 acres of land that can be seen on the east side of Highway 101 just south of town is known as the Santa Maria Elks/Unocal Events Center.
"We got this March 31, 1995," said Ted Scott, special projects chairman for the Elks Lodge. "Union Oil gave it to us. They were phasing out. It's stipulated in the deed that all net proceeds must go to youth recreation."
Since 1944, annual Elks rodeos had been held at the Santa Maria fairgrounds. "Now we had our own place."
While the 180-by-330-foot arena is the center of rodeo activity, the grounds host other community functions.
A popular BMX track was built on the grounds last year and continued to operate during the fire camp. There's also
a landing strip for radio-controlled model airplanes. Recently, the grounds were also the site of the American Can-cer Society's Relay for Life.
And Circus Vargas pulled out the day the firefighters moved in.
"There's always some activity. There's always somebody out here," said Scott, emphasizing that "we're all volunteers."
While Scott had no idea how many Elks lodges have similar facilities, he said, "I doubt if very many do."
He gazed over the tent city where cattle once grazed. "We're kind of proud of it," he said.
Roadside Attractions is a weekly chronicle of sights along the
Central Coast's main commuter routes. Sally Cappon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
September 1, 2009