Not all fire fights are created equal.
In some cases, firefighters are left with two choices when a blaze breaks out: fight back or let it burn.
As 13 large wildfires continued to rage across the state Tuesday, some on national forest land fell into the “let it burn” camp — a tactic designed to let nature take its course. That’s not the case, however, with the Whittier Fire burning on Los Padres National Forest land near Lake Cachuma in northern Santa Barbara County.
“Here in Southern California, that is not an option” because of the densely populated areas, said Lee Beyer, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service.
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The Angeles, Cleveland and San Bernardino national forests have similar strategies of 100 percent containment.
“In a worst-case scenario, any fire in those areas could reach communities and do real damage,” Beyer said.
An example of a blaze left to do its thing is the Schaffer Fire burning in the Sequoia National Forest just north of Kernville. A lightning strike is believed to be the cause of that more than 15,000-acre fire, but there aren’t thousands of firefighters rushing to the scene.
“Crews are just cleaning up the bottom and letting the fire do it’s natural thing,” Beyer said. “They do analysis and sometimes just let it burn. They have the latitude to do that.”
In the sparsely populated areas around national forests in Northern and Central California this tends to be the plan, Beyer said. He said the U.S. Forest Service always responds and takes action but doesn’t necessarily call for major reinforcements.
The Los Padres National Forest, which covers about 1.75 million acres from the northern edge in San Luis Obispo County south to Ventura and east to Palmdale, doesn’t fall into this category.
Beyer, along with units from all over the state, spent Thursday at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, base camp for the Whittier Fire. About five miles away in the Santa Ynez Mountains, crews attacked the southern end of the fire closest to the 30,000 residents below.
“The south side isn’t doing much,” Beyer said. “That is the area we are trying to keep in check with aircraft.”
There are now 842 firefighters assigned to the fire, including 97 engines, 11 hand crews, eight bulldozers, eight helicopters and two water tenders from Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service and the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
As of Tuesday evening, the fire had charred nearly 11,000 acres and was 25 percent contained. The cause is still under investigation. Crews will keep fighting until containment reaches 100 percent.