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Tuesday, January 22 , 2019, 1:57 pm | Mostly Cloudy 61º


La Brea Fire: Cause Traced to Pot Farm Campfire

Cooler temperatures during the weekend help fire crews slow fire's progression, and blaze is now 75 percent contained

The cause of the 8-day-old La Brea Fire has been traced to a cooking fire in the campsite of an illegal marijuana-growing operation, authorities said Saturday night. No arrests have been made but it is believed that the suspects are on foot and still at large in the San Rafael Wilderness.

Monday morning fire officials announced that the La Brea Fire’s acreage total had reached 87,490, and the number of personnel on scene was 2,078.

Weather conditions overnight Sunday did not support the crews’ planned burnout operation, intended to tie Schoolhouse Canyon into Sierra Madre Ridge. However, the fire activity was quiet on the west, north and northeast flanks of the blaze, officials said.

A community meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday at Cuyama Valley High School, 4500 Highway 166, New Cuyama, to provide a fire update and containment plans.

Ash from the fire is continuing to spread throughout the county and an air-quality watch remains in effect at least through Tuesday, county Public Health Department officials said Monday.

Meanwhile, a Martin Mars super scooper airplane made a historic “landing” at Lake Cachuma on Saturday afternoon and “cautiously optimistic” fire commanders pointed to overall progress in the battle against the wildfire. Sunday night, they downgraded several mandatory evacuation orders.

Flames continue to spread in Los Padres National Forest east of Santa Maria. Crews saved the historic Manzana Schoolhouse after the fire crossed the Sisquoc River on Friday night but the old White Oaks Ranger Station was destroyed. For the first time, however, officials described their outlook as “cautiously optimistic” after extensive fire-line construction and backburns.

In a joint statement Saturday night, the U.S. Forest Service and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department announced that a week-long investigation had determined that a campfire was the source of the 130-square-mile wildfire. The sheriff’s Narcotics Unit confirmed that the campsite at the point of origin was part of a marijuana-growing operation believed to be run by a Mexican drug organization, the statement said. Narcotics officers have been conducting eradication raids in the area.

According to the statement, there is evidence that the unburned marijuana garden area has been occupied within the last several days, after the La Brea Fire ignited. The Narcotics Unit has secured the camp, which was located in remote and rugged terrain. It is believed that the suspects are still within the San Rafael Wilderness, trying to leave the area on foot. Officials have issued a warning not to approach anyone who looks suspicious but to instead contact authorities.

The investigation is ongoing, and forest service special agents and sheriff’s narcotics officers are being assisted by the county Fire Department, CAL FIRE and other local agencies.

Smoke waves from the La Brea Fire gave the sky an artistic pattern Friday night in a photo taken from Elings Park.
Smoke waves from the La Brea Fire gave the sky an artistic pattern Friday night in a photo taken from Elings Park. (Lauren Hanson photo)

Anyone with further information is urged to contact the forest service, the Sheriff’s Department or local law-enforcement agencies. Investigators can be reached through the La Brea Fire tip line at 805.686.5074. Callers may remain anonymous.

About 1 p.m. Saturday, Lake Cachuma had its first-ever visit by a super scooper, county spokesman William Boyer said. The aircraft — the world’s largest scooping water bomber, with a wingspan of 200 feet and a payload of 7,200 gallons — had been using Lake San Antonio north of Paso Robles since midweek.

Boating has been banned temporarily from Cachuma for aircraft operations, although the rest of Cachuma Lake Recreation Area remains open this weekend.

At noon Sunday, Boyer said the Sheriff’s Department downgraded mandatory evacuation orders to warnings for homes and ranches in the following areas:

» Tepusquet Canyon, between Santa Maria Mesa Road and Highway 166

» Colson Canyon, including Blazing Saddles Drive

» Ruiz Canyon

» Buckhorn Canyon Road

» Pine Canyon Road

Residents may return to their homes under an evacuation warning but must be prepared to leave immediately should that status change. All other evacuation advisories are unchanged.

Click here for the latest fire information, or call 805.961.5770 from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Bill on Twitter: @noozhawk.

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(Ray Ford map)

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