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Santa Barbara County wildfire grows to 4,000 acres; Highway 101 reopens

AP

Update, 8 a.m.

The Sherpa Fire jumped to 4,000 acres overnight but firefighting crews were able to protect homes in El Capitan Canyon and structures at El Capitan State Beach, officials said Friday.

For the second straight night, Highway 101 was shut down along the Gaviota Coast Thursday after flames from the wind-driven fire “bumped” the roadway as they headed southeast, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The road was reopened around 5 a.m.

The Union Pacific Railroad tracks were also reopened to travel at 11 p.m. Thursday.

The rapid spread of fire overnight Thursday was a repeat of Wednesday night, and the trend is expected to continue every night as long as sundowner winds, which shove the fire southeast, continue, officials said.

Unified Command reported 5 percent containment of the perimeter as of 7 a.m. Friday and expected full containment next Wednesday.

Update, 6 a.m.

Highway 101 has reopened as of 5 a.m., according to the County of Santa Barbara.

Update, 10:42 p.m.

Highway 101 was expected to remain closed in both directions until morning as fire crews battle a growing wildfire along the Gaviota Coast in Santa Barbara County, emergency officials said.

The freeway was ordered closed from Buellton to Winchester Canyon Road after flames from the Sherpa Fire reached the roadway near El Capitan State Park, according to information from the CHP and the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Caltrans says motorists were being advised to use highways 246 and 154 as detours.

Train travel north of Goleta had been stopped, according to a Kelly Hoover, public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.

The fire, which had expanded to 1,400 acres, remained at zero percent containment after helicopters and air tankers stopped flying as darkness fell, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Manny Madrigal.

Officials were concerned the flames will spread toward homes in Refugio Canyon and El Capitan Canyon, and southeast toward Goleta.

About 140 homes and ranches were potentially at risk, depending on which way winds pushed the flames.

Mandatory evacuation orders remained in effect for: El Capitan Canyon, El Capitan Ranch, El Capitan State Beach, Refugio State Beach, Refugio Canyon, Venadito Canyon and Las Flores Canyon, Hoover said in a news release.

More than 1,200 personnel are assisting in fighting the blaze, according to an incident report.

Update, 8:50 p.m.

The CHP has closed Highway 101 in both directions for the second consecutive night as fire crews battle a growing blaze along the Gaviota Coast in Santa Barbara County.

The Sherpa Fire, which has burned approximately 1,400 acres and is expected to keep growing overnight Thursday, reportedly encroached on the freeway. The CHP incident information page reported that the flames jumped to the freeway’s center divider.

The freeway is closed from Buellton to Winchester Canyon Road, according to CHP dispatch. Caltrans says motorists are being advised to use highways 246 and 154 as detours.

At 7:47 p.m., there were reports of flames burning down the hillside toward the freeway as vehicles pulled over to the side of the road.

Original story:

An intense, multi-pronged attack on a Santa Barbara County wildfire continued Thursday as firefighters raced against the weather to halt a blaze that had blackened 1,400 acres along the Gaviota Coast in a location that hasn’t burned for 60 years.

Air tankers and ground crews were concentrating their efforts on the eastern flank of the fire, which is nearest the city of Goleta.

Flames in that area kicked up late Wednesday night, threatening homes and an oil-processing plant in Las Flores Canyon.

“Obviously it’s going to get bigger. It’s getting bigger as we speak,” Santa Barbara County fire Chief Eric Peterson said.

There was no estimated time for containment — which was still at zero percent Thursday — but officials said they were trying to “box it in” as quickly as possible.

CalFire unit Chief Scott Jalbert, from San Luis Obispo County, said the wind patterns change with sundowners, causing the fire patterns to head south instead of east-west.

Santa Barbara County fire Capt. Dave Zaniboni said several ranch homes were evacuated, but no structures have burned.

As of 5 p.m. Thursday, there were 812 personnel working the fire, along with 30 overhead units, including air tankers and water-dropping helicopters. Low smoke stopped aircraft from making reconnaissance flights for acreage estimates earlier in the day, according to the Joint Information Center for the fire response.

An air-quality warning was issued Thursday as smoke from the fire stretched throughout the South Coast, almost obscuring the view of the Santa Ynez Mountains from Santa Barbara on an otherwise clear, sunny day.

Residents were asked to limit their time outdoors, especially older adults, children and those with heart or lung aliments, the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District said.

People also were advised to keep doors and windows closed unless the weather turned extremely warm. (Temperatures are expected to climb over the weekend.)

While crews tackled the Sherpa Fire, flames broke out in separate blaze in the mountains above Santa Barbara about 2:45 p.m. Thursday. Firefighters were able to control the fire, which burned an area about the size of a football field, according to the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Caltrans advised that Highway 154 was open, but the roadway was busy with travelers heading to Live Oak Music Festival this weekend.

Firefighting efforts at the much-larger Sherpa Fire are being handled by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire. Santa Barbara County’s Emergency Operations Center has been activated, and a base camp for the firefighting effort has been set up at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta.

Flames crept within 20 yards of Highway 101 on Wednesday night, — “way too close,” said CHP Lt. Steve Larson. The fire’s proximity to the freeway caused an overnight closure of all lanes.

The Las Flores Canyon oil and gas processing facility had no structure damage overnight, even though the fire “bumped” it, Peterson said.

The facility has good defensible space and it “paid off last night,” he said.

The facility has been mostly idle since last year’s Refugio Oil Spill; offshore oil platforms shut down after the transportation pipeline ruptured.

The fire, which started about 3:15 p.m. Wednesday near Refugio Road, caused mandatory evacuations of Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach campgrounds, along with areas in Refugio Canyon, Las Flores Canyon, Venadito Canyon and El Capitan Canyon. El Capitan Ranch and Ocean Mesa at El Capitan were also evacuated.

Evacuation warnings were expanded Thursday morning to include the area between and including Farren Road to El Capitan Canyon, after the wind-driven fire expanded to about 1,200 acres overnight. That included Canada de las Destiladera, Las Llagas Canyon, Gato Canyon, Las Varas Canyon, Dos Pueblos Canyon and Eagle Canyon, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.

The area hasn’t burned in decades, and when winds picked up, the fire burned “like a blowtorch” right through retardant lines, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Andrew Madsen said.

“I think the concern is holding that thing on the eastern and western flanks, and there is really old, dead, heavy fuel out there,” Madsen said.

A sheriff’s department jail bus was sent to the Refugio campground Wednesday night to pick up about 30 campers who didn’t have other transportation, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.

The department sent out emergency notification calls to 428 homes and businesses Wednesday, and 395 of those were for mandatory evacuations.

A Red Cross shelter is located at 300 N. Turnpike Rd., and small crates have been available for small pets. Forty-one people stayed there Wednesday night, and all but three stayed outside the facility in their own campers, according to the county. That center was expected to remain open until evacuations are lifted, while the Santa Ynez Union High School shelter was put on standby.

Horse evacuations were carried out Wednesday, and 83 animals were housed at Earl Warren Showgrounds as of Thursday morning. Residents are asked to call 805-681-4332 if they can offer temporary housing for large or small animals.

Camping reservations at Refugio and El Capitan parks have been canceled through next Friday, State Parks Superintendent Eric Hjelstrom said.

The parks were evacuated and closed as the fire “took a fast run toward the ocean” Wednesday night, with sundowner winds pushing the blaze south, he said.

Winds in the fire area and along the South Coast were expected to kick up again Thursday afternoon and evening, according to Stuart Seto, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

The forecast was calling for sundowner winds of 15-25 mph, with gusts to 35 mph, Seto said. He said wind would continue “off and on until Sunday.” That’s when a major warm-up is expected, with highs reaching the 90s on Sunday and Monday. Record high temperatures for the date are possible on Monday, he added.

Giana Magnoli is managing editor for Noozhawk.com, a Santa Barbara-based news website. Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton, Tribune staff writer Mark Powell and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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