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Battle Against Sherpa Fire Winding Down as Containment Reaches 89%

With weather change, and other Southern California wildfires burning, army of fire personnel could drop to 180 by week's end

Firefighters preparing to head out to the Sherpa Fire lines Tuesday evening check out a containment map during a briefing at the fire camp at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta.
Firefighters preparing to head out to the Sherpa Fire lines Tuesday evening check out a containment map during a briefing at the fire camp at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

The 6-day-old battle against the Sherpa Fire west of Goleta was winding down Tuesday night, as the containment level reached 89 percent and cooler, calmer weather moved in to the area after several days of scorching and gusty conditions.

With active flames all but gone, crews and resources were being shifted to new wildfires burning out of control in Southern California, and the general mood was generally upbeat at the fire camp based at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta.

Most of the 7,969-acre fire, which broke out a week ago near the top of Refugio Canyon on the Gaviota coast, is now in patrol and mop-up status, with firefighters searching out and dousing remaining hot spots to prevent the blaze from rekindling, according to Rocky Opliger, the incident commander.

They also are beginning the process of “suppression repair,” trying to reverse, as much as possible, the physical and environmental damage caused by firefighting efforts.

Completing the remaining ... containment line likely will take several more days, Opliger said, owing largely to the extremely rugged terrain on the fire’s northeast flank.

“We always talk about what’s the most difficult to get that final 100-percent containment objective, and that’s probably the most difficult,”​ Opliger said. “I’m estimating that when we transition to the local jurisdiction (managing the fire) at the end of the week, we won’t have it 100-percent contained.

“We know there are areas that are very, very difficult to get into, and our highest priority, besides public safety, is emergency-responder safety.”

Four Hotshot crews were shuttled via helicopter into that area on Tuesday to construct containment line and extinguish hotspots near the fire's edge, Opliger said.

Fire managers clearly were relieved Tuesday to see a shift in the weather, away from the excessive-heat warnings and sundowner winds they encountered the previous three nights. Cooler, calmer and more humid conditions are expected through the end of the week.

With the Sherpa Fire dwindling, and major blazes burning elsewhere in Los Angeles and San Diego counties, the firefighting force is expected to be quickly drawn down, Opliger said.

It peaked at 2,178 personnel Tuesday morning, but had already dropped to 1,670 by the evening, and was likely to be reduced by another 600 to 800 over the next two days, he said.

“We’re anticipating that by Friday, we’ll be down to about 180 people,”​ Opliger said.

Some of the other numbers associated with the fire are impressively large.

The price tag for suppression costs through Monday totaled $12.5 million, according to Frank Mosbacher, fire information officer.

Of that, he said, some 43 percent was for the various aircraft — air tankers and helicopters — that spent days dropping water and laying down the lines of retardant that were key to halting the blaze.

“The 1.4 million gallons of retardant that was dropped is a very big number,” Mosbacher noted.

At 5 a.m. Wednesday, most of the residents who were evacuated due to the fire were to be allowed back into their homes, while evacuation warnings for other areas were scheduled to be lifted.

Refugio State Beach is scheduled to reopen to the public on Saturday, while El Capitán State Beach is expected to remain closed much longer because the fire severely damaged its water system.

The cause of the blaze, which started the afternoon of June 15 near some buildings at Rancho La Scherpa Christian Conference Center in the 2500 block of Refugio Road, remains officially “under investigation.”

Officials said previously that there was no criminal investigation, implying that the cause was accidental, but have released no details.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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