Rey Fire in Santa Barbara burns 31,255 acres, is 35 percent contained

Smoke from the Rey Fire coming from the Mono Creek area is being pushed by west winds, making it more visible on the coast.
Smoke from the Rey Fire coming from the Mono Creek area is being pushed by west winds, making it more visible on the coast.

It will be at least another week before the Rey Fire, which has been burning in the Santa Barbara backcountry, is fully contained.

That’s according to the U.S. Forest Service, which has targeted Aug. 31 as the containment date for the blaze.

“That’s an estimate,” said Richard Hadley, an information officer with the Type I incident-management team that took over command of the fire Tuesday evening. “It’s our best guess based on the strategies and tactics we are pursuing.

“After some analysis, it could move up and it could move back.”

As of Wednesday morning, the fire had blackened an estimate 31,255 acres and was 35 percent contained.

Suppression costs through Tuesday morning were estimated at some $5.8 million, Hadley said.

While fire crews in Santa Barbara battled the Rey Fire, others continued their attack on the Chimney Fire near Lake Nacimiento in San Luis Obispo County. As of Wednesday morning, that fire had grown to more than 40,000 acres and was 39 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

At a Rey Fire press conference Tuesday at the vista point off Highway 154, officials explained that the most active part of the fire continued to be the eastern flank, with flames still burning eastward, north of Gibraltar Reservoir, in the Los Padres National Forest.

Capture rey fire 0824

Much of the vegetation in that area is at least 75 years old, officials said, noting that there is no history of fire there dating back to at least the 1940s.

Crews spent much of Tuesday constructing contingency containment lines well ahead of the fire, with the goal of stopping it from crossing east of Mono Creek, a tributary of Gibraltar.

Hadley explained that “containment means not just a line, but having it moped up to make sure there’s no heat, just like you would with a campfire.”

Firefighters often speak about “building a box” around a wildfire, starting with primary containment lines and adding secondary lines in case the flames jump the perimeters.

Current contingency lines are being established along the P-Bar Trail and then the Pendola Jeep Trail.

“We’ll be looking at lines two and three out, because of the potential here,” Hadley said. “We’ll build multiple boxes where we think we have enough time to get the lines in, and frequently we have to ‘burn out’ from those lines to remove the fuels between us and main fire to give us more depth.

“Once you get it black, then the fire line’s much wider.”

Burnouts are sections of fire intentionally set by firefighters to take away fuel in advance of the main fire.

Fire crews also have been busy protecting structures on the Ogilvy Ranch, as well as Forest Service buildings including historic backcountry cabins and the Pendola Station.

The protection includes “wrapping” the structures with a specialized, foil-type material that is designed to reflect heat and inhibit embers and sparks.

The technique has been used successfully on other major wildfires locally, including on the Cold Spring Tavern and the Manzana School House.

“On the east side, where most of the activity is, we’re in an indirect attack,” said Robert Baird, forest supervisor for Los Padres National Forest. “So we’re building fire lines out in front of the fire, trying to get them out far enough where we have time to possibly burn those out and steer this fire north toward the Zaca Fire footprint.”

The fire has been “moderating a bit” as it has reached the burn area for the 2007 Zaca Fire, which charred more than 240,000 acres and burned for more than two months.

“There’s still a lot of heavy fuel, it’s continuous, but the fire is moderating its behavior,” Baird said.

Officials remain concerned about protecting the watersheds for Lake Cachuma and Gibraltar Reservoir, which are supplied by the Santa Ynez River and other tributaries.

The fear is that heavy winter rains, should they come, will carry torrents of sediment from the denuded hillsides into the reservoirs, thereby reducing their capacity and permanently affecting the water supplies for communities on the South Coast and in the Santa Ynez and Lompoc valleys.

“Gibraltar, of course, suffered heavily after the Zaca Fire of nine years ago,” said Tom Fayram, deputy public works director for Santa Barbara County.

Gibraltar already is largely silted in, but officials are keeping a watchful eye on Jameson Lake, farther upstream, which is a crucial water supply for the Montecito Water District.

Eric Peterson, Santa Barbara County fire chief, noted that many local firefighters are intimately familiar with the Santa Barbara backcountry.

“We have a lot of people in the Santa Barbara County Fire Department and our adjoining agencies … who have a lot of local knowledge,” Peterson said. “Many of the people that are on this fire actually grew up in the hills behind us here.

“So, those people are being fully utilized in this fire, in line and command staff, and are having an effect.”

Asked about the cause of the fire at Tuesday’s press conference, officials said, almost in unison, that it remained under investigation.

However, when the blaze broke out on the afternoon of Aug. 18 at the White Rock Picnic Area along Paradise Road, initial radio reports indicated there were power lines down in the area.

On Tuesday, power lines on the north side of Paradise Road, east of the White Rock entrance, were pinned under a large part of an oak tree that had collapsed on them.

It appeared that the strain on the line brought down adjacent utility polls and lines, and possibly sparked the initial fire.

The area is roped off with police tape, and a Forest Service person told Noozhawk it was a crime scene.

Several people were seen examining the area around the power lines.

With so many resources tied up fighting the Rey Fire and other major blazes throughout the state, Forest Service officials have increased fire restrictions for the forest to Stage 4. They include:

▪  Wood and charcoal fires are prohibited in all areas of Los Padres National Forest, including designated Campfire Use sites. However, persons with a valid California Campfire Permit are allowed to use portable stoves and lanterns using gas, jellied petroleum or pressurized liquid fuel within the designated Campfire Use Sites only. California Campfire Permits are available for free download from the Los Padres National Forest website (http://www.fs.usda.gov/lpnf).

▪  Recreational target shooting is prohibited in all areas of the National Forest unless specifically authorized by a special-use permit with the forest; however, hunting with a valid State of California hunting license during open hunting season is exempt from this restriction.

▪  Smoking is prohibited in all areas of the national forest except within an enclosed vehicle, building, or designated Campfire Use Site.

▪  Fireworks are prohibited at all times and in all locations within Los Padres National Forest.

▪  Operating or using any internal or external combustion engine without a spark arresting device properly installed, maintained and in effective working order on roads and trails specifically designated for such use. (This restriction is in effect year-round.)

Violators are subject to a $5,000 fine and/or six months in jail, and could be liable for the full cost of any fire suppression activities that result from their actions.

Also facing possible legal action are any people who operate aerial drones in the area of the fire.

Scott Jalbert, chief for Cal Fire in San Luis Obispo County, urged the public to keep drones far from any fire areas, noting that when they fly, firefighter aircraft cannot due to safely concerns.

He said there had been a couple incidents on the Rey Fire in which drones had been observed and confiscated.

Anyone who sees a drone operating in the fire area is asked to report it by calling 844-Drone11 (844.376.6311).

Paradise Road remained under a hard closure, according to Sheriff Bill Brown, which means no public entry is allowed.

However, residents have been allowed access to retrieve items and check on their homes.

East Camino Cielo was under a soft closure, which means only residents are allowed.

The closure came after dozens of motorists flocked to the area to get a look at the fire, creating an obstacle for fire crews coming and going to the fire lines, officials said.

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