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Bill Macfadyen: Noozhawk’​s Sherpa Fire Readership Spreads Like Wildfire

NoozWeek’​​s Top 5 goes up in smoke but a heartbreaking story of a dead newborn boy brings up the tears

How close did the Sherpa Fire come to El Capitán State Beach the night of June 16? Too close.
How close did the Sherpa Fire come to El Capitán State Beach the night of June 16? Too close. (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)

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There were were 134,834 people who read Noozhawk this past week, as reported by our Google Analytics.

Although rare, one news event was responsible for almost the entire Top 5. Some of you might have gone with the Golden State Warriors’​​ epic fail, but we didn’​​t write about LeBron James’​​ performance for the ages.

No, it was the Sherpa Fire, and our team’​​s wildfire stories accounted for four of the Top 5 positions and seven of the Top 10. The tens of thousands of readers clicking on our coverage helped push Noozhawk to more than 1 million monthly pageviews for the fifth time in the last nine months.

This is my ​take on those stories, but the takeaway is this: Don’​​t let down your guard like the Warriors did. It’​​s shaping up to be a long, hot summer, and there’s fire danger nearly everywhere you look.

1. Sherpa Fire Explodes to 4,000 Acres Overnight, Pushed by Sundowner Winds

Aside from free food, few things get the attention of a news journalist faster than a wildfire — especially in Southern California.

The drama, the unpredictability, the intensity of the moment, the continuously changing conditions, the public’​​​s need to know, and the inherent danger and risks all serve to quicken the pulse, literally on the first report.

Noozhawk is no stranger to wildfires, and our veteran leadership prides itself on the ability to cover them quickly, accurately, factually and in context. For executive editor Tom Bolton, managing editor Giana Magnoli and North County editor Janene Scully, this wasn’​​t their first rodeo, and it showed.

From our very first report on the fire, which exploded on the sweltering afternoon of June 15 high in Refugio Canyon on the Gaviota coast, Tom and his crew were providing steady and comprehensive updates from close to the scene as well as from Noozhawk’​​s vast network of sources.

In fact, Tom posted our first breaking news bulletin at 3:44 p.m. that day, 14 minutes after the blaze was reported to authorities.

We updated that story through the night and until the morning, when Giana posted this story — NoozWeek’​​s No. 1 story — after she got the latest briefing from fire officials.

Each day after that, we continued to post new Sherpa Fire stories with the latest information on evacuations ordered, warnings issued, acreage burned and resources deployed.

We finally started to stand down June 21 when containment had reached nearly 90 percent and mutual-aid firefighters were released to go home or redirected to wildfires burning elsewhere in California.

Fortunately, no houses appeared to have any real harm, but several thousand acres of grazing range and agricultural land were damaged, including scores of mature avocado and citrus groves. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

This was the first rodeo for our newest reporters, Sam Goldman and Brooke Holland, the latter of whom hasn’​​t even been with us a month. Neither had covered a story of this magnitude so it was a ... wait for it ... real baptism by fire.

Sam and Brooke were more than up to the task, and both had Top 5 stories. Good job, Rookies!

Finally, if a picture is worth a thousand words, we’​​ve published an encyclopedia, thanks to the work of our photo crew of Tom Bolton, Ryan Cullom, Peter Hartmann of the Urban Hikers, Diego Topete and Zack Warburg.

Providing some of the biggest and most spectacular pictures was my old friend, Mike Eliason, who occasionally shoots for Noozhawk when he’​​s not working his full-time job as a Santa Barbara County Fire Department public information official — as he was throughout the Sherpa Fire. He was in the heart of the fire fight, fielding inquiries from media while simultaneously wielding a camera that probably was the closest to the flames. 

Mike also deserves a shout-out for leading a weekend excursion of the burn area, from which Tom got some unbelievable pictures of his own.

» Click here for a related Noozhawk photo gallery.

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Red alert. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)
Red alert. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

2. Crews Battling Sherpa Fire Catch a Break as Winds Fall Short of Forecast

Fearsome sundowner winds were a no-show the night of June 17, enabling firefighters to make their first real progress against the then-2-day-old Sherpa Fire.

“As of right now, the winds have not kicked up,” fire public information officer Michelle Carbonaro told Noozhawk just before 10 p.m.

“That will allow for crews to make progress through the night. That’​​s when they typically can make their best progress.”

That’​​s not to say gusty winds weren’​​t a factor as the fire’​​s footprint swelled to more than 7,600 acres. Late that night, the National Weather Service reported winds of 30 mph in Refugio Canyon and 20-25 mph in Las Flores Canyon.

The Sherpa Fire was no picnic for the Dalton Hotshot Crew from Angeles National Forest, but they had enough juice left for a team photo from West Camino Cielo before heading back to fire camp after a very long day on the front lines June 18. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)
The Sherpa Fire was no picnic for the Dalton Hotshot Crew from Angeles National Forest, but they had enough juice left for a team photo from West Camino Cielo before heading back to fire camp after a very long day on the front lines June 18. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

3. Sherpa Fire Holding at 7,811 Acres, 45% Containment as Hot Weather Looms​

As Brooke reported, by June 18, firefighters had made pretty good progress against the Sherpa Fire, reaching 45 percent containment of the then-3-day-old conflagration.

Officials credited determined fire crews working through the night, cooperative winds, and an aerial onslaught from planes and helicopters encircling the blaze with fire retardant. Much of that retardant was laid down on the fire’s eastern edge, which had burned to within about six miles of Goleta.

It’​​s heartbreak all around in this murder trial. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)
It’​​s heartbreak all around in this murder trial. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

4. Testimony Reveals Dead Newborn Suffered Multiple Stab Wounds

Witnesses at a hearing for a 15-year-old Santa Maria girl charged with the murder of her newborn baby described a gruesome discovery in a plastic bag: the infant’s lifeless body covered in stab wounds.

Santa Maria police Detective Andrew Brice testified on June 22 that one of the wounds was so severe it exposed the baby boy’s spinal cord.

The girl, referred to as Maribel S. because of her age, was arrested Jan. 27 after she went to Marian Regional Medical Center, where staff determined she had recently given birth.

Police say she initially claimed the baby was stillborn, and that she had hidden his body in a bathroom vanity at her family’s apartment in the 200 block of East Tunnell Street, a few blocks north of Santa Maria Town Center.

Upon further questioning, Brice said, the girl claimed the knife had slipped as she attempted to cut the baby’s umbilical cord.

“She told me she may have cut the baby here, here and here,” Brice said, pointing to his arm, chest and throat.

Based on what the girl had told him, Brice said he looked inside the vanity and found a plastic bag — after moving a pile of shoes.

“You could see the hair from the infant’s head through the plastic bag and what appeared to be the back of an infant child,” he said.

At the hearing before Juvenile Court Judge Arthur Garcia, defense lawyer Lea Villegas tossed up a host of challenges to the police search of the apartment. It’s not clear whether she was persuasive enough for Garcia, who has yet to rule on the motion.

Last month, the girl entered the equivalent of a not-guilty plea in the case.

Click here for more information about adoption options from the Care Net Pregnancy & Resource Center of Santa Maria, or call 805.928.9285​. Click here for more resources from CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation).

Bombs away. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)
Bombs away. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

5. Crews Defy Extreme Heat, Gusty Winds to Make Steady Progress on Sherpa Fire

By the night of June 19, officials at the Sherpa Fire incident command post were increasingly optimistic that things were going their way with the then-4-day-old fire.

Although the fire had grown to nearly 8,000 acres, firefighters had managed to contain 54 percent of it by the next morning.

                                                                 •        •        •

Last Year on Noozhawk

What was our most-read story this time last year? Driver Dies After Car Crash on Hollister Avenue in Western Goleta.

                                                                 •        •        •

Bill Macfadyen’s Story of the Week

Talk about binge watching: The World’s Most Boring Television ... and Why It’s Hilariously Addictive.

                                                                 •        •        •

Watch It

Car commercials may not be showing you what’s really under the hood.

(millchannel video)

                                                                  •        •        •

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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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