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Wednesday, March 20 , 2019, 2:42 am | Overcast 54º

 
 
 
 

Canyon Fire at Vandenberg Air Force Base Presents Unique Challenges

Battling a major wildfire on an active military base adds obstacles to unpredictability of winds, temperatures, humidity and fuel sources

Flames from the Canyon Fire burning Vandenberg Air Force Base are visible Monday on a ridge behind Hillside Ranch. Click to view larger
Flames from the Canyon Fire burning Vandenberg Air Force Base are visible Monday on a ridge behind Hillside Ranch. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

[Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery of the Canyon Fire.]

A mystery tank near Space Launch Complex-6 at south Vandenberg Air Force Base spotlights one challenge faced by crews battling the approximately 9,500-acre Canyon Fire.

The tank is a half-mile from the former space shuttle launch pad, which is now home to the Delta IV rocket program.

Firefighters at the scene noted it appeared to be a water tank, but wanted confirmation it wasn’t anything potentially hazardous and flammable, according to emergency scanner reports. A short time later, confirmation came: It was a water tank.

In addition to the normal challenges faced when fighting a vegetation fire, Canyon Fire crews were coping with the unique features found around the West Coast space launch site and on an active military base.

"Every time we send out crews we do a briefing with the crews and we have technical experts that come in and they brief," said Assistant Fire Chief Wayne Seda from the Vandenberg Fire Department.

The area is home to unique Chumash rock art and sacred Chumash sites. They also share about roads, wildlife and vegetation found on the base. 

"We prep the crews as best we can for everything," Seda added.

As of Monday night, crews had contained 6 percent of the fire while flames move toward the southern boundary of the 99,000-acre base and Sudden Ranch area, VAFB officials said.

On Monday afternoon, an ambulance was headed to Vandenberg to pick up at least one firefighter for an unspecified medical incident.  Two firefighters also were injured Sunday, according to Capt. David Zaniboni from Santa Barbara County Fire Department

The fire remained active Monday, and officials expected the size to increase but did not expected to have an update until the 6 p.m. briefing. Yet, at 9:30 p.m., a VAFB representative insisted the number remained 4,500 acres; an hour later, he confirmed the 6,200-acre number.

Assistant Fire Chief Wayne Seda talks about the Canyon Fire burning at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Monday. Click to view larger
Assistant Fire Chief Wayne Seda talks about the Canyon Fire burning at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Monday.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Meanwhile, base representatives reportedly told Lompoc city officials the fire has burned between 7,000 and 9,000 acres and threatened three launch pads.

"This is a high priority fire right now just because of the assets involved on this base," Zaniboni said.

As the dark black cloud hovered over the area, flames were visible above the Hillside Ranch, drawing the attention of dozens of drivers who stopped to watch. Later Monday, Vandenberg officials said they would limit South Base access to emergency personnel only.

With people continuing to gather Monday night along the side of Ocean Avenue/Highway 246, VAFB representatives requested a complete closure of the road from Union Sugar Avenue to Surf Beach, saying the spectators were hindering fire operations.

The blaze was moving at a “slow to moderate speed,”​ Vandenberg representatives added, as the fire marks its third day since starting at 5:20 p.m. Saturday near Arguello and Santa Ynez Ridge roads.

The fire has caused power outages in several South Base facilities, which were not identified. At least two rockets and several satellites reportedly are at South Base facilities.

“Those buildings are currently operating on generator power,” VAFB officials said in a statement. “Civil engineers will sustain the generators until downed electrical lines can be repaired and commercial power is restored to base facilities.”

The fire continues to burn primarily on base property, but moved off base to scorch a grassy area near Miguelito Canyon. The area where it burned is not near populated areas, however.

The Canyon Fire burns Vandenberg Air Force Base Monday, as seen from the Space Launch Complex-3 that houses the Atlas V rocket and WorldView 4 satellite. Click to view larger
The Canyon Fire burns Vandenberg Air Force Base Monday, as seen from the Space Launch Complex-3 that houses the Atlas V rocket and WorldView 4 satellite. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

Evacuation warnings remain for Miguelito Canyon and La Salle Canyon, with some owners choosing to relocate livestock as a precaution. The Santa Maria Elks/Unocal Event Center opened to provide shelter for evacuated animals.

Rugged terrain, remote location and drought-starved vegetation are among challenges firefighters are facing.

Firefighters also have been warned about possible unexploded ordnance in the area, leftover remnants from when the base was a training facility during World War II and the Korean War.

“All crews have had the necessary briefings on the unexploded ordnance hazards and they are taking precautions,” a Vandenberg spokesman said.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

With billowing clouds visible throughout the Lompoc Valley, fire information continued to be scant Monday. VAFB public affairs officials have provided few updates to counteract the scary scene.

The Canyon Fire burning Vandenberg Air Force Base land was still zero-percent contained as of Monday afternoon. Click to view larger
The Canyon Fire burning Vandenberg Air Force Base land was still zero-percent contained as of Monday afternoon.  (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)

In addition to firefighters on the ground, several helicopters and air tankers are assisting crews.

On Sunday, as VAFB officials said the fire had grown to 1,200 acres, emergency radio reports put the size at more than 2,600 acres.

Smoke from the fire prompted the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department and the county Air Pollution Control District to issue an air-quality watch for the county that will remain in effect until conditions change.

“Some smoke has blown offshore but winds can change, and smoke may affect a range of areas in the county,” the notice said. “Parts of the county may also experience falling ash.”

Anyone who sees or smells smoke should be cautious and use common sense, county officials said.

“Everyone — especially people with heart or lung conditions (including asthma), older adults, and children — should limit time spent outdoors and avoid outdoor exercise when high concentrations of smoke and particles are present,” the notice said.

Pyrocumulus cloud forms high above the flames Monday afternoon creating erratic and dangerous winds at Vandenberg Air Force Base below. Click to view larger
Pyrocumulus cloud forms high above the flames Monday afternoon creating erratic and dangerous winds at Vandenberg Air Force Base below.  (Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

Additionally, if you see falling ash, residents are urged to avoid activities, such as using leaf blowers, that will stir particles into the air.

Smoke exposure symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, wheezing, chest tightness or pain, palpitations, and nausea or unusual fatigue or lightheadedness.

In additon to Vandenberg crews, the force fighting the fire includes Santa Barbara County, Cal Fire, U.S. Forest Service and local agencies such as Santa Maria, Lompoc, Montecito and more from the Central Coast and beyond. Assistance is coming from as far away as Florida.

Vandenberg Air Force Base has been the site of several fires through the years, including the deadly 1977 Honda Canyon Fire that killed the base commander, the fire chief, an assistant fire chief and a bulldozer operator.

In addition to dry vegetation, crews are dealing  with an area that last burned 40 years in the Honda Canyon Fire. Other sections now ablaze burned more recently, in the 2002 Sudden Ranch Fire, Seda said.

In the early 1990s, a Minuteman I missile veered off course and was destroyed by safety officials, with flaming pieces raining onto North Base, sparking a fire that threatened the community of Casmalia.

The 2000 Harris Grade Fire initially burned 9,700 acres after starting on oil company property. Flames raced across VAFB property, jumped the four lanes of Highway 1 and headed toward Casmalia.

While the initial fire was contained quickly, a little-known peat bog in the path burned for months, with a stinky odor wafting over the North County as the Air Force poured millions of gallons of water on the site to extinguish the blaze.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully 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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