Crews make progress on Sherpa fire despite heavy wind, rising temperatures

By Saturday afternoon, the four-day-old Sherpa Fire had burned more than 7,800 acres along the rugged Gaviota Coast west of Goleta. Officials said the wildfire was 45 percent contained.
By Saturday afternoon, the four-day-old Sherpa Fire had burned more than 7,800 acres along the rugged Gaviota Coast west of Goleta. Officials said the wildfire was 45 percent contained. Noozhaw.com

Update, 7:30 p.m.

The Sherpa Fire burning in southern Santa Barbara County hit a milestone of sorts Sunday evening, topping 51 percent containment as firefighters prepared for a night of potentially troublesome sundowner winds.

The size of the blaze that has been menacing the Gaviota Coast for five days increased slightly, to 7,893 acres, after crews spent the day toiling — on the ground and in the air — to construct containment lines and lay down miles-long bands of fire-retardant.

With temperatures rising to near 100 degrees on the fire lines, three firefighters were evacuated for heat-related illness, but all were expected to be OK, according to fire officials.

The area of greatest concern on the fire, which broke out Wednesday afternoon high in Refugio Canyon, continues to be the northeast flank, closest to populated areas in the city of Goleta.

Air tankers and helicopters pounded that area throughout the day, and officials said they were “cautiously optimistic” even with the forecast for gusty winds.

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

Original story:

Sherpa fire in Santa Barbara County grows to more than 7,000 acres at start of hot, windy weekend

A Santa Barbara County brush fire along the Gaviota Coast had swelled to almost 8,000 acres as of Saturday afternoon, fueled by strong winds, rising temperatures and an extended drought.

Officials said Saturday that the Sherpa Fire was 45 percent contained and had grown to 7,811 acres. Notorious “sundowner” winds did not emerge overnight as they had feared, but were expected to surge again Saturday evening.

Even stronger winds were expected late Sunday through Monday morning. And the weekend is also ushering in a new challenge: a heat wave that will bring temperatures reaching into the triple digits.

“As the temperatures get hotter this weekend and the winds get stronger, as the sundowners come in to take effect, it will continue to push that hot gas faster downhill,” said Michelle Carbonaro, a spokeswoman for a team of agencies combating the fire. “When the wind comes down like that, it makes the fields and fuels more ready to burn.”

Mandatory evacuation orders remained 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.

“We caution you again that not complying with a mandatory evacuation order is something that you do at your own peril,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.

County officials said the fire had begun off Refugio Road around 3:15 p.m. Wednesday. Its cause was still under investigation.

Despite the fire’s rapid growth, firefighters managed to save a campground and keep flames away from other developed property. About 270 structures are under evacuation orders, but only one outbuilding had been lost.

Also lost was a water treatment plant in El Capitan Canyon. It provided water to El Capitan State Park for bathrooms, water fountains and other uses, according to officials.

Its loss could force public areas to remain closed even after the flames are subdued, officials said.

The flames are racing through a combustive mix of chaparral, tall grass and brush in a wilderness area that has not experienced a major fire since 1955.

The surreal scene included fire tornadoes with temperatures reaching 2,000 degrees. As of Saturday afternoon, more than 1,900 personnel were fighting the flames.

Two firefighters had suffered minor injuries but returned to battling the blaze, officials said Saturday. A few of the firefighters also were discovered to be suffering from strep throat, officials said Friday. That problem appeared to be contained, even as the official evening bulletin cataloged the ongoing fire risk.

“There is continued threat to structures, agricultural crops, state parks, and critical infrastructure including: communication sites (and) power lines. And Highway 101 remains a concern.”

As the fire raged out of control Thursday night, Highway 101 was closed to traffic as tendrils of flame burned on both sides of the roadway. Motorists trapped en route took pictures of a helicopter dropping flame retardant in the fast lane.

The highway reopened at 4 a.m. Friday and was open as of Saturday morning, but officials have warned that gusty evening downslope winds could prompt them to close the highway again.

The sundowner winds are the result of hot air from the Santa Ynez Mountains clashing with cool air off the Pacific Ocean.

“What we need is a break from the wind,” said David Zaniboni, public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Many locals evacuated because of the poor air quality — they were tired of breathing in thick smoke and ash, which created a misty plume clearly visible from satellite photos taken far above the planet’s surface.

It hasn’t burned in so long. I guess it needed to happen. But who needs a disaster?

Riley Keith, Santa Barbara native

Riley Keith, a 65-year-old retiree, said he saw smoke blanket the sky over El Capitan Ranch and knew it was time to go.

Keith, his wife, Yvonne, his mother, Betty Bosworth, and their dog and bird have been living out of their car since the fire started Wednesday.

They were living at his sister’s ranch in El Capitan when mandatory evacuation orders arrived Wednesday night.

He said his sister stayed behind, while he and his family slept in an Albertsons parking lot. The family since has moved to a shelter in Goleta, while Keith’s sister continued her vigil in defense of her property.

“She’s tough as nails,” he said. “But you have to be when you’re running a ranch. My wife and I just couldn’t stand the smoke.”

Keith, a Santa Barbara native, said he has grown accustomed to wildfires, but not necessarily of this scope.

“It hasn’t burned in so long. I guess it needed to happen,” he said. “But who needs a disaster?”

Although the threat to residents has been limited so far, the county’s $1.48-billion agriculture industry may not be so fortunate.

Avocado, citrus and olives groves already have been scorched, but it’s too early to determine the extent of the damage, county officials said.

Santa Barbara County on Friday declared a state of emergency, which will qualify the region for increased aid.

This report was compiled by Alexia Fernandez, Joseph Serna, Howard Blume and Emily Alpert Reyes of the Los Angeles Times.