Santa Barbara County fire scorches 1,200 acres along Gaviota coast

A DC-10 makes a drop on the east flank of the Sherpa Fire Thursday afternoon in Santa Barbara County.
A DC-10 makes a drop on the east flank of the Sherpa Fire Thursday afternoon in Santa Barbara County. Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Update, 10 a.m.:

Santa Barbara County officials continued to issue evacuation orders as the Sherpa Fire’s reach extended to 1,200 acres.

Mandatory orders were issued for residents in or near El Capitan Canyon, El Capitan Ranch, El Capitan State Beach, Refugio State Beach, Refugio Canyon, Venadito Canyon and Las Flores Canyon, according Kelly Hoover, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.

The Red Cross is operating a shelter at 300 N. Turnpike Road in Goleta.

Highway 101 remains open, but could close again if conditions change, Hoover said.

About 485 firefighters continue to battle the blaze, which has not yet been contained, according to agency information provided through InciWeb.

A press conference on the fire will be held at 11 a.m. at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, according to the U.S. National Forest service operating in Los Padres National Forest.

Update, 7:45 a.m.

Highway 101 is being reopened in both directions, according to the CHP.

Caltrans was working to remove the road closure signs in Buellton and in the Santa Barbara area.

Update, 5:15 a.m.:

At 1 a.m., the Sherpa Fire had charred an estimated 1,100 acres and was 0 percent contained, according to Capt. Dave Zaniboni of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

"High winds fanned the fire late Wednesday night and caused it to grow very quickly," Zaniboni said, adding that flames had burned within a quarter mile of Highway 101.

Highway 101 was still closed just south of Refugio as of 5 a.m., according to the CHP.

Update, 11:19 p.m.:

Highway 101 was shut down in both directions at 11 p.m, with the northbound closure at Winchester Canyon and southbound closure at Buellton, according to the CHP.

The CHP reported that the fire was 300 yards from the highway and burning in its direction. Drivers were being diverted to Highway 154 as an alternate route, the CHP said.

There was no estimated time of when the highway would reopen.

Original story:

An army of firefighters was battling into the night Wednesday, trying to tame a wind-driven vegetation fire that threatened scores of homes in and around Refugio Canyon on the Gaviota Coast.

At 10:15 p.m., the area burned by the Sherpa Fire was listed at 200 acres — though that figure was at least two hours old — and flames were continuing to spread, mainly to the east.

The fire was heading toward the Las Flores Canyon oil and gas processing facility, which has been idle and largely vacant since last year’s Refugio oil spill.

Evacuations were getting underway in El Capitán Canyon as well as at El Capitán State Beach, and fire crews were being redeployed to the fire’s eastern flank, according to emergency radio traffic.

There was no estimate of containment, said Manuel Madrigal, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

Earlier in the day, authorities had issued mandatory evacuation orders for Refugio Canyon, Las Flores Canyon and Venadito Canyon Road areas, including the oil and gas processing plant.

Emergency notifications through the 911 system were made to 235 phone lines in the mandatory evacuation and warning areas.

“Winds have calmed up here, although there are still predicted sundowner winds for later this evening,” Santa Barbara County fire Capt. Dave Zaniboni said at about 8 p.m..

The fire burned in heavy brush in a southeasterly direction down the canyon, away from the ridgetop toward the ocean.

An evacuation shelter was scheduled to open at 9 p.m. at the Wake Center at 300 North Turnpike Road, and evacuated livestock were being taken to Earl Warren Showgrounds at 3400 Calle Real in Santa Barbara.

No structures were damaged, and no injuries were reported as of 8 p.m., Zaniboni said.

Air support were dropping water and retardant on the blaze until nightfall, and more firefighting resources were expected to arrive throughout the night, he said.

Refugio Canyon Road was completely shut down, as was Calle Real between El Capitan and Refugio.

Santa Barbara County and U.S. Forest Service crews were dispatched about 3:30 p.m. to the fire, which originally was reported on the 2500 block of Refugio Canyon Road.

The first units on scene reported an active fire near the ridge line.

The blaze had burned 20-plus acres as of 4:30 p.m., with flames consuming heavy brush and spreading rapidly, according to Forest Service spokesman Andrew Madsen.

“We’re going at it with everything we’ve got,” Madsen said.

The blaze — dubbed the Sherpa or Scherpa Fire because it started at Rancho La Scherpa, a Christian conference center — was burning in a rugged area of thick chaparral, he said.

About 250 fire personnel were assigned to the blaze, Zaniboni said.

Resources assigned to the fire included three helicopters and eight air tankers, including a giant DC-10 jet aircraft, Madsen said.

Also assisting in the fire fight were crews from the city of Santa Barbara, Montecito and Vandenberg Air Force Base.

At about 7 p.m., strike teams of brush trucks were ordered to protect structures in the threatened areas. Crews on scene reported relatively light winds, but a wind advisory is in effect for the South Coast mountain areas until 6 a.m. Thursday.

The advisory calls for winds of 15 to 25 mph, with gusts to 40 mph.

Tom Bolton is executive editor for Noozhawk.com, a Santa Barbara-based news website. He can be reached at tbolton@noozhawk.com.