[ Scroll to the bottom to see Max Rosenberg’s aerial video of the fire. ]
A wind-driven wildfire burning in the Santa Barbara backcountry remained at 1,800 acres Tuesday afternoon, as firefighters were keeping a wary eye on the weather, hoping gusty conditions that fanned the White Fire would not shift and drive flames toward populated areas.
Nearly 600 personnel were assigned to the fire, which broke out Monday afternoon along Paradise Road at the upper end of the Santa Ynez Valley, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
“The worry is really the weather,” said Capt. David Sadecki of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “This is a pretty good size wildfire, and the vegetation is really dry.”
Fire officials have run computer models on the blaze, and as of late Monday night were relieved by the results.
“The prediction is for a normal westerly weather flow for the next few days,” Sadecki said.
As flames ripped up the Paradise Road canyon Monday afternoon, authorities evacuated an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 people from the area, a part of the Los Padres National Forest that was crowded with campers and day-use visitors in addition to local residents due to the Memorial Day holiday.
All campgrounds and day-use visitors were cleared, and some 75 residents were evacuated, along with the Los Prietos Boys Camp. The Boys Camp residents were transported to the Santa Maria Juvenile Hall, Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Kelly Hoover said.
The Forest Service will be allowing residents back into their homes at 6 p.m. Tuesday, but the campgrounds in the area will remain closed, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Manny Madrigal said.
There was much more air activity by Tuesday afternoon with water-dropping helicopters and flame-retardant-dropping air tankers, he added.
Santa Barbara County Search & Rescue personnel were sent in to escort a group of campers from the Santa Cruz trail camp .
The blaze broke out about 2:30 p.m. in the White Rock day-use area along the Santa Ynez River, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Andrew Madsen.
There have been reports that the fire was sparked by someone dumping out hot coals, but that could not be confirmed.
No injuries have been reported, and the cause of the fire remained under investigation.
As of 7 a.m. Tuesday, the blaze had burned more than 1,800 acres. Sadecki said, and was 10 percent contained.
The blaze remained active on its east and north flanks, the Forest Service said, with the potential of growth pegged at “extreme.”
The west side of the fire was “secured but not contained,” Sadecki said, while the eastern flank “is a running wildfire.”
Forest Service officials have targeted 12 a.m. Monday for full containment, but indicated that is a “rough estimate.”
Pilot Max Rosenberg of Santa Barbara Aviation described the scene after flying over the blaze Monday evening on his way back from Los Angeles.
“That fire’s really big,” Rosenberg said, estimating that the fire line stretched 1.5 to 2 miles.
He said he could see flames he estimated at 100 feet tall.
Rosenberg voiced the fear facing firefighters — that the winds could shift to the north and drive the blaze over the ridge and into South Coast neighborhoods.
Six air tankers that were assigned to the blaze were grounded for a time due to high winds, Sadecki said, but were expected to return to action Tuesday morning.
Several water-dropping helicopters continued to assault the blaze from the air until nighfall.
A Forest Service Hotshots barracks at the Los Prietos Ranger Station compound was damaged by fire, Madsen said, but was not a total loss.
Two vehicles also were reported burned.
“We’ll be out here all night, and probably all day tomorrow,” Sadecki said early in the evening.
Smoke from the blaze was visible throughout the South Coast, and ash was reported dropping in the Montecito area and on the Mesa.
“When I first got here, there was a whole ridge of high flames,” said Nicolina Halverson, who lives on Sunshine Lane off Paradise Road. “And now it’s not as bad.”
She was waiting for clearance to get to her home, but fire officials said it was unlikely residents would be allowed back in the area before Tuesday.
Through most of the afternoon, flames were moving east, driven by gusty winds, and Madsen noted that the fire appeared to be moving away from structures.
The fire was remaining on the north side of the Santa Ynez River, but fire officials were concerned that the winds could shift to the north and drive the flames over the Santa Ynez Mountains ridges and down into the populated areas below in Santa Barbara and Montecito.
Temperatures in the area Monday afternoon were reported in the 80s, with sustained winds of 20 mph winds.
Forecasters say they expect slightly lower temperatures — and higher humidity — on Tuesday, but hotter, drier conditions are likely later in the week.
The Forest Service is the lead agency fighting the fire, with assistance from several other fire agencies in the region.
Some 300 fire personnel were on scene Monday evening, with another almost 300 expected to join them by Tuesday.
For Tuesday’s firefight, officials have ordered 28 engines, eight hand crews, five water tenders, and more than 20 aircraft.
Structure-protection teams were in place to guard the various cabins and homes in the area, Madsen said.
Some 50 structures were potentially threatened by the fire, according to county officials.
Highway 154 was closed down for a time in both directions in the area of the fire, but was later reopened. However, the CHP was urging people to avoid the area.
Paradise Road was shut down at Stagecoach Road, according to the CHP.
An evacuation center was set up by the American Red Cross at the Wake Center, 300 N. Turnpike Road, Sadecki said, and was expected to open by 7:30 p.m.
An equine evacuation was set up at the Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara.
An Air Quality Warning was issued for the South Coast and the Santa Ynez Valley due to smoke from the blaze.
The last fire in this area was the 2007 Rancho Fire, which burned 482 acres.
Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli reported from the scene.