The Gap Fire remained far from contained Saturday but Goleta was able to breathe a collective sigh of relief after mandatory evacuation orders were lifted for many neighborhoods. A large section of the North Patterson Avenue neighborhood was reopened Sunday. The fire’s size grew to 9,400 acres.
At a Saturday afternoon news conference, officials announced that the area north of Cathedral Oaks Road between Fairview Avenue and Winchester Canyon had been downgraded to an evacuation warning. Santa Barbara County communications director William Boyer said the 4-day-old fire’s perimeter has been sufficiently stabilized near Goleta to allow residents to return to their homes if they choose, “immediately and with proof of residency.” Residents of the neighborhoods — Ellwood, Glen Annie, La Patera and Winchester canyons, as well as Glen Annie Golf Course — must remain on alert and be prepared to go at a moment’s notice.
Other areas were reopened Saturday night, including Rancho Embarcadero west of Goleta, Painted Cave above it, and between Fairview and Poinsettia Way north of Cathedral Oaks. On Sunday, evacuation orders were lifted for Camino Andaluz, Camino Altozano, Camino Cerralvo, Camino Galena, Camino Manadero, Camino Meleno, Camino Palomera, Camino Rio Verde, Spur Valley Road and Via Del Rey.
Mandatory evacuation orders remain in effect for Farren Road west of Goleta and the Haney Tract, Hidden Valley, Kinevan Road, Trout Club, West Camino Cielo and Windermere Ranch areas up the mountain. Residents were ordered to leave those areas Thursday and Friday nights.
Early Sunday, as the fire continued to move west, an evacuation warning was issued for Dos Pueblos Ranch, Eagle Canyon and Santa Barbara Ranch north of Highway 101. To the east, some 850 residents near Old San Marcos Road and Highway 154 remained under an evacuation warning, as well. In all, some 3,200 homes are said to be imperiled.
Authorities said evacuees would be allowed to return home when the fire was no longer “active” in their neighborhoods. In the meantime, the American Red Cross, Santa Barbara County Chapter has established an evacuation center for residents and pets at San Marcos High School, 4750 Hollister Ave. Just a few families remained there Saturday night.
Noting that the evacuation orders and warnings “can be confusing,” Goleta Mayor Michael Bennett said Saturday that the city of Goleta has up-to-date fire information and road closures at kiosks at Calle Real Center in front of Trader Joe’s, 5680 Calle Real; Camino Real Marketplace, 7004 Marketplace Drive; the Fairview Shopping Center, 175 N. Fairview Ave.; the Goleta Valley Community Center, 5679 Hollister Ave.; and the Old Town 7-Eleven, 5810 Hollister Ave.
Saturday night, the county and the city of Santa Barbara announced that information kiosks of their own would be updated daily. Those kiosks are located at Embarcadero Hall, 928 Embarcaderso del Norte, Isla Vista; La Cumbre Plaza near Sears, 121 S. Hope Ave.; Paseo Nuevo, 700 State St.; San Marcos High; the Santa Barbara Mission, 2201 Laguna St.; and Stearns Wharf.
Los Padres National Forest lands south of Highway 154 and East Camino Cielo between Gibraltar and Refugio roads have been closed until the Gap Fire is suppressed. The closure prohibits all public entry to national forest lands, trails, roads and recreation sites, but it does not apply to private land.
More than 2,500 firefighters from numerous agencies are battling the Gap Fire, which has been declared California’s top firefighting priority. Officials said significant “ground troops and aircraft” were being deployed Saturday, largely in the steep, rugged canyons on the fire’s northeastern flank. The aerial assault has included as many as 19 water-dropping helicopters and six air tanker planes, one of which is a converted DC-10 airliner capable of delivering a mile-long load of fire retardant. Officials said Friday that retardant drops were most effective along the fire’s northeastern edge and efforts were being concentrated there to keep the blaze from reaching Highway 154 or crossing West Camino Cielo into the Santa Ynez Valley.
Although the size of the blaze had grown to 9,400 acres Sunday morning, fire officials said it was now 28 percent contained. Still, they said full containment was impossible to predict and they expressed concern that the fire’s western edge could advance to somewhere east of Refugio Canyon — nine miles away. Inaccessible terrain and chaparral that hasn’t burned for more than 50 years is hindering the search for a place to make a stand.
The area continued to be raked by dangerous sundowner winds but Friday’s batch — although gusting to 50 mph — was weaker than previous nights and Saturday’s was weaker still. The down-slope winds are expected to taper off by Sunday night but a severe heat wave is forecast for California beginning Monday.
At a Friday news conference, officials said the fire had pushed to the edge of Camino Manadero, north of the Patterson Avenue “curve,” and actually had burned into several yards there Thursday night. No homes were damaged but county fire Capt. Eli Iskow, a department spokesman, said the intense heat forced three firefighters to briefly take shelter inside a home. Iskow said the firefighters made the retreat for their own safety.
No houses have burned but officials said the fire destroyed a motor home in upper Ellwood Canyon and a few ranch structures in upper Glen Annie Canyon. No serious injuries have been reported.
The Gap Fire started about 5:45 p.m. Tuesday near the Lizard’s Mouth hiking area on West Camino Cielo, about a half-mile east of the Winchester Canyon Gun Club. Officials have said the fire was caused by humans but have refused to say whether it was accidentally or intentionally set. The blaze remains under investigation and a 24-hour tip line — 805.961.5710 — has been established to receive information on the origin.
At first, about 45 homes were evacuated from mostly rural ranch land in Glen Annie and La Patera canyons. Fueled by sundowners, the fire began growing dramatically Wednesday, spreading to about 1,200 acres before doubling in size overnight Wednesday and again Thursday. The fire is running in an an area that last burned in 1955. It’s about two miles west of the path of the 1990 Painted Cave Fire that destroyed 600 homes in a little over an hour.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the county Thursday and visited the area Saturday morning. To date, he has declared states of emergency in 11 wildfire-plagued counties: Santa Barbara, Butte, Kern, Mariposa, Mendocino, Monterey, Plumas, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta and Trinity.
County Deputy Fire Chief Tom Franklin said the Gap Fire is California’s No. 1 firefighting priority because of its proximity to densely populated neighborhoods. Fires are prioritized based on danger, not size, he said, noting that last year’s Zaca Fire — the second largest in modern California history — was not a priority fire “because there wasn’t a lot of threat.”
At Friday’s news conference, Southern California Edison spokeswoman Jane Brown said crews were on standby to deal with fire-caused power outages like those that darkened the South Coast on Wednesday night and have continued intermittently. She appealed to customers to conserve electricity to lessen the impact when the utility needs to reroute transmission lines to deal with the emergency.
On Friday and Saturday, Direct Relief International, in cooperation with the county Health Department and the city of Goleta, distributed free NIOSH N-95 face masks to residents who cannot avoid outdoor exposure to the smoke.
The fire forced the cancellation of Fourth of July festivities in Goleta, including the annual fireworks show at Girsh Park and the Independence Day celebration at Stow House, 304 Los Carneros Road.
Summer school at Dos Pueblos High, 7266 Alameda Ave., was canceled this week because the campus is being used as an emergency services incident command center and staging area. School will resume Monday but, for at least the next two weeks, classes will be held at La Colina Junior High, 4025 Foothill Road, said Barbara Keyani, spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara School Districts. MTD will continue to provide bus service for students.
In response to overwhelming call volumes, county officials announced Saturday that a new Gap Fire public information line had been established at 805.681.5195. The line will provide updates on the fire status and will be staffed from 8 a.m. to midnight. Los Padres National Forest’s Information Center can still be reached at 805.961.5770.
Click here for up-to-the-minute reports from the Incident Information System. Click here to join the county Fire Department’s “Red Flag Zone 1” Google discussion group and to receive red-flag alerts.
Additional information can be found on county government cable TV station Channel 20, or the following AM or FM radio stations: AM stations KTMS 990, KUHL 1410, KZSB 1290 and KINF 1440; FM stations KCSB 91.9, KSPE 94.5 (Spanish), KSYV 96.7, KTYD 99.9, KSBL 101.7, KRAZ 105.9 and KIST 107.7 (Spanish); and San Marcos Pass Radio 1040 AM.
For the most complete fire coverage, however, check back frequently with Noozhawk, which is updated throughout the day and night.
Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen can be reached at email@example.com. Local student Erika Bildsten is a Noozhawk contributor.