Local

Santa Barbara County fire at 7,811 acres, 45 percent contained; Hwy. 101 being monitored

A BAe-146 airliner drops fire retardant on the Sherpa Fire on Saturday. The blaze has burned more than 7,000 acres near Goleta in Santa Barbara County.
A BAe-146 airliner drops fire retardant on the Sherpa Fire on Saturday. The blaze has burned more than 7,000 acres near Goleta in Santa Barbara County. Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Update 3:20 p.m.

As a wildfire along the Gaviota Coast in Santa Barbara County burned into its fourth day Saturday, firefighters expressed relief that strong overnight winds did not materialize. But a forecast calling for hot and windy conditions the next few days kept them on high alert.

The Sherpa Fire has grown to 7,811 acres but is now 45 percent contained as of Saturday afternoon.

Overnight conditions along the Gaviota Coast were not as windy as anticipated, and firefighters took advantage of the break by working to build and reinforce containment lines along the north and east sides of the blaze, according to a fire incident report.

Crews also are working to reinforce containment along Highway 101, which was open Friday night but could be shut down Saturday as fire managers and the CHP monitor progress, the report said.

The freeway “may be closed again if the fire is determined to be a hazard to motorists,” the report stated.

The eastern flank of the fire — currently near Las Llagas Canyon, about six miles west of Goleta — is what has incident commanders most concerned.

The rugged terrain in that area has made it unsafe for hand crews to build direct containment lines, said Robert Laeng, a U.S. Forest Service fire management officer who is one of the incident commanders.

Instead, crews have been working on secondary contingency lines, and also doing some “back burns” to clear out pockets of vegetation ahead of the fire, Laeng said.

The idea, he explained, is to create what fire managers call a “catcher’s mitt, so if the wind shifts and pushes the fire down the hill, it will run into a black line that’s much deeper than just our hand lines or our (bull)dozer lines.”

Firefighters have been assisted by air tankers that have been laying down lines of retardant in front of the fire.

“In short, we will continue to push across the top and bottom of the fire until we can find a place to connect those two,” Laeng said.

Extreme drought conditions and strong winds are hampering firefighting efforts in a region that’s expected to see scorching temperatures into early next week.

Additional rounds of sundowner winds remain a concern throughout the weekend, officials said.

Mandatory evacuation orders remain in effect for Refugio Canyon, Venadito Canyon, Las Flores Canyon, El Capitan Canyon, El Capitan State Beach, El Capitan Ranch, and Canada de la Destiladera, and the area east of the Refugio burn area up to Calle Lippizana, near the equestrian center.

More than 1,900 firefighting personnel are tackling the fire. The estimated time of containment is Thursday, according to the updated report.

Brooke Holland, staff writer for Noozhawk.com, a Santa Barbara-based news website, contributed to this report. Tribune staff writer Mark Powell also contributed.

Update, 10 a.m.

Fire crews doing combat with the Sherpa Fire along the Gaviota Coast on Saturday are fighting to gain greater control of the blaze before a warmup Sunday and Monday.

The lack of “sundowner” winds, which plagued firefighters Wednesday and Thursday nights, helped crews on Friday. For the first time in two days, Highway 101 remained open through the night.

Even so, the fire had grown to 7,063 acres by Saturday morning, with 24 percent containment, according to the U.S. Forest Service. A local state of emergency was declared for the fire by the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Services on Friday.

Crews on Saturday will work to build and reinforce containment lines along the north and east sides of the fire and along Highway 101, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The road may be closed again if motorists are thought to be in danger.

Scott Sukup, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, said on Friday that winds were expected to pickup over the next few days, accompanied by a heat wave on Sunday and Monday.

The impending hot weather is a concern for crews, who worry about the effect the additional heat may have on firefighting efforts.

“That’s what they’re really, really concerned about,” said Brendan Halle, a spokesman for the South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team. “If we can get through Monday, we should be OK.”

More than 1,200 personnel have been assigned to battle the fire, which draws its name from Rancho La Scherpa, a conference center in Refugio Canyon where the blaze began. Two minor injuries to firefighters — lacerations — have been reported.

Officials on Friday confirmed that the fire started on Rancho La Scherpa, but would say only that the specific cause was “under investigation.”

(Two different spellings have been used for the fire’s name: Scherpa, after the point of origin, and Sherpa, which is what the U.S. Forest Service has chosen.)

Full containment is expected by Thursday, according to the U.S. Forest service.

Tom Bolton, executive editor of Noozhawk.com, a Santa Barbara-based news website, contributed to this report. Tribune staff writer Lindsey Holden also contributed.

Update, 10:30 p.m. Friday

Firefighters battling the Sherpa Fire along the Gaviota Coast appeared to be catching a break Friday night as expected gusty “sundowner” winds fell short of the intensity that was forecast.

“As of right now, the winds have not kicked up,” said Michelle Carbonaro, a public information officer for the team of agencies combating the fire. “That will allow for crews to make progress through the night. That’s when they typically can make their best progress.”

Fire crews had been bracing for a return of the gusty conditions that fanned the blaze the two previous nights, causing the area burned to swell to 5,866 acres as of Friday evening.

Despite the reprieve, the conditions on the fire lines remained challenging, with rugged terrain and winds of 30 mph in Refugio Canyon and 20 to 25 mph in Las Flores Canyon late Friday night, according to Scott Sukup, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

He also warned that winds were expected to pickup over the next few days, accompanied by a heat wave Sunday and Monday.

Containment remained at 20 percent, with full containment expected by next Saturday, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Original story:

Santa Barbara County declared a state of emergency Friday as the wind-driven Sherpa Fire continued to rage along the Gaviota Coast.

The declaration, which was announced at a late-morning news conference by Santa Barbara County Supervisor Doreen Farr, will allow all needed county resources to be directed toward battling the blaze, which had charred 5,866 acres and was 20 percent contained as of Friday afternoon.

The announcement came as fire commanders were girding for several more days with hot and windy afternoons and nights, conditions that have fanned the flames and led to the acreage burned more than doubling from Thursday night into Friday. The blaze had burned more than 9 square miles as of Friday evening.

The eastern flank of the fire remained the area of greatest concern, and most of the more than 1,200 personnel were focused on that area Friday, officials said.

Downslope “sundowner” winds whipped for two nights, causing the blaze to move quickly to the southeast.

“When the sundowners do surface, our offensive opportunities are extremely limited, and we need to fall back on more of a defensive strategy,” said Robert Laeng, a U.S. Forest Service fire management officer who is one of the incident commanders.

Another round of gusty winds were expected Friday evening, according to Cal Fire. The winds are expected to be about 35 mph at the beach and 45 mph in the hills. The strongest winds are expected between 8 p.m. and midnight.

Firefighters, working on the ground and from the air, were trying to build primary and secondary containment lines along the eastern front of the fire, which had reached the eastern edge of El Capitan Canyon as of Friday morning.

Fire crews hoped to push the blaze to the higher elevations, eventually pinching it off and reaching full containment, Laeng said. He said he was confident, given the expected weather conditions, that crews would be able to halt the fire no later than when it reaches Tecolote Ridge, the beginning of the burn area from the 2008 Gap Fire.

Crews from Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service and the Santa Barbara County Fire Department have been assigned to battle the fire, which draws its name from Rancho La Scherpa, a conference center in Refugio Canyon where the fire began. Officials Friday confirmed the blaze started on Rancho La Scherpa, but would say only that the specific cause is “under investigation.”

(Two different spellings have been used for the fire’s name: Scherpa, after the point of origin, and Sherpa, which is what the U.S. Forest Service has chosen.)

On Thursday night, the fire, driven by strong, downslope winds, roared into El Capitan Canyon. Highway 101 was closed in both directions between Buellton and Winchester Canyon Road from about 8:30 p.m. Thursday to 5 a.m. Friday. The flames crept down from the hillside and crossed the freeway near El Capitan State Beach, according to the CHP.

The Santa Barbara County Fire Department posted a picture of firefighters taking shelter behind a fire engine as flames and a hail of embers roared toward them.

“I was actually on scene last night and saw some of the fire tornadoes, and I tell you what, it’s no joke. ... It was off the hook,” CHP Lt. Steve Larson told the Associated Press.

Crews were able to protect the various homes, cabins and other structures in the canyon, but the water system for El Capitan State Park was destroyed by flames, according to Eric Hjelstrom, the State Parks superintendent who oversees the park.

The water system is high up in El Capitan Canyon and includes a well, a water-treatment system and a storage tank. The fire destroyed the treatment system, leading to an undetermined delay in reopening the state park and campground, which were evacuated and shut down Wednesday night.

Cathy Fisher, county agricultural commissioner, said agriculture has taken a hit from the fire, including avocado, lemon and olive growers and cattle ranchers. The damage levels were being assessed, she said.

The fire, which started around 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, Cañada de la Destiladera and El Capitan Canyon. El Capitan Ranch and Ocean Mesa at El Capitan were also evacuated.

I was actually on scene last night and saw some of the fire tornadoes, and I tell you what, it’s no joke. ... It was off the hook.

CHP Lt. Steve Larson

Evacuation warning areas, where people should be prepared to evacuate if necessary, include Las Llagas Canyon, Gato Canyon, Dos Pueblos Canyon, Eagle Canyon and Farren Road.

The Sherpa Fire appeared to support national wildfire authorities’ predictions of another dangerous and difficult year for the state after years of drought. State firefighters and the U.S. Forest Service already have fought more than 1,800 wildfires since Jan. 1, according to Cal Fire.

While El Niño delivered rain and snow to Northern California this winter, the south was bypassed. What rain fell was just enough to sprout grasses that quickly died, adding to the danger of long-dead vegetation.

“It is ominous,” Santa Barbara County fire Chief Eric Peterson said during a morning press conference.

Lanny Stableford watched as a fleet of aircraft attacked flames in rugged Refugio Canyon near his ranch, according to The Associated Press. He keeps 40 head of longhorn cattle.

“I can leave but they won’t let me back, so I’m just kind of hanging out here,” he said, noting he was not in danger. “Somebody has to take care of my cows.”

Tom Bolton, executive editor of Noozhawk.com, a Santa Barbara-based news website, contributed to this report. Tribune staff writer Mark Powell and The Associated Press also contributed.

  Comments