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May 24, 2022

Missile test rattles county – again

Vandenberg missile lights up sky
A test missile launched from Southern California Monday night
unnerved some South County residents, causing one panicked caller
to report a fire on San Benito Mountain.
Vandenberg missile lights up sky

A test missile launched from Southern California Monday night unnerved some South County residents, causing one panicked caller to report a fire on San Benito Mountain.

The Minuteman II missile blasted off at 7 p.m. from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Maria, creating a brief but spectacular light show of colorful contrails over half of the state before it was destroyed by an interceptor test missile launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

As the Minuteman streaked over New Idria, some thought a plane had crashed on remote San Benito Mountain. The sky, according to witnesses, became a rich orange color and peach hues tinted the landscape. One resident from the Futures Foundation drug rehabilitation center in New Idria insisted to 911 operators that the “the whole mountain was on fire.”

“It happens every time,” said Angie Costa, a county 911 dispatcher based in Hollister. “And they (Vandenberg) never tell us. The caller insisted that the whole mountain was on fire, and we thought, OK, we know it’s Vandenberg again. But we have to alert CDF because of protocol.”

And alert them they did. CDF firefighters were putting out a structure fire on Browns Valley Road when they got the call. The crew charged up Panoche Road when communications called them back.

“The caller called back to say he thought the fire was out,” said Costa.

But the CDF pressed on, as did South County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Goodwin, who said it wasn’t the first time that the remote New Idrian residents have called in with “some goofy stuff.”

“You have to go, even though you know it’s a false alarm,” said Goodwin. “I had a pretty good idea it was nothing.”

When Costa and her co-workers suspected that another Vandenberg missile launch was creating the panic, the dispatchers ran outside their building to check the sky.

“It looked like the aurora borealis, without the shimmer,” said Costa.

Other residents living near New Idria agreed that the contrails simulated the northern lights.

“There were loops and swirls of orange and peach colors in the contrails,” said Kemp Woods of Whimsy Mining Company, located about a mile downstream from the ghost town of the New Idria Mercury Mine. “Then there was a streak of deep blue-green caused by the ionized gases, possibly when the second stage fell into the sea. I think he (the caller) saw the second stage fall and he thought it fell on the mountain.”

People as far away as San Francisco and Los Angeles reportedly saw the celestial show until 7:28 p.m., when the test interceptor took out the Minuteman. The Minuteman was carrying a mock warhead, and the air base also fired an unspecified number of decoys to test the interceptor’s ability to distinguish between them and the Minuteman. The launches, declared successful, were an exercise to test the effectiveness of the nation’s ability to take out incoming long-range missiles.

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