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Firefighters Wary of Winds as They Battle Gibraltar Fire

Officials say good progress has been made, but Montecito evacuation warnings remain; About 50 acres charred, containment at 10%

Tankers coat the hills with flame retardant Thursday.
Tankers coat the hills with flame retardant Thursday.  (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

[Click here for a gallery of fire photos]

Firefighters from multiple agencies were keeping a close watch on the winds Thursday afternoon as they reported making good progress corralling a brush fire burning in rugged terrain off East Camino Cielo near Montecito Peak.

As of 9 p.m., the Gibraltar Fire in the mountains above Santa Barbara and Montecito had charred about 50 acres, and was 10-percent contained, according to Santa Barbara County Fire Department Capt. David Zaniboni. 

Earlier estimates had the fire at 70 acres, but the smaller size come from better information from air resources and field observers, according to fire commanders. 

Throughout the day, fire crews mounted an aggressive attack from the ground and from the air, and by mid-afternoon a line of reddish-orange fire-retardant had been placed completely around the fire.

“Now we’re making really good progress on the ground with hand crews and engine guys,” Zaniboni said. “I think we’re in good shape, and let’s hope the wind doesn’t kick anything up.”

The blaze was reported at 5:16 a.m. about a half-mile off of East Camino Cielo, three miles east of Gibraltar Road and to the west of Montecito Peak.

All-Out Aerial Attack Credited With Slowing Mountaintop Gibraltar Fire

It lit up the sky above Santa Barbara as dawn broke, and set off a flurry of firefighting efforts.

The active part of the fire was burning approximately 3-5 miles from populated areas, according to fire commanders.

A member of the Los Padres National Forest Hot Shot crew stands at the ready with a chainsaw just before getting the orders to proceed into the ravine below Montecito Peak and begin cutting a fire line. Click to view larger
A member of the Los Padres National Forest Hot Shot crew stands at the ready with a chainsaw just before getting the orders to proceed into the ravine below Montecito Peak and begin cutting a fire line. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

There were approximately 520 people working on the scene as of 4 p.m., including 10 helicopters, 20 engines, eight hand crews, four bulldozers and five water tenders.

There were 10 air tankers that dropped a total of 85,000 gallons of fire retardant throughout Thursday, Zaniboni said. They stopped in the late afternoon after a full containment line was dropped, but four are on standby at the Santa Maria Airport.

With the forecast of sundowner winds Thursday night, “We want to make sure this fire is completely out as soon as we can get it, before night comes, and we are making good progress right now,” Zaniboni said.

“The threat remains until the winds subside, basically.” 

There are 50 engines stationed at Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara in case more help is needed, if the wind propels the fire past the current containment lines. 

Scroll down to see a video of a tanker drop.

There were reports that air tankers were being hampered in their drops by turbulence near the fire, but Zaniboni said that was not an ongoing problem.

The Gibraltar Fire burns south of East Camino Cielo Thursday morning in the hills above Santa Barbara. Click to view larger
The Gibraltar Fire burns south of East Camino Cielo Thursday morning in the hills above Santa Barbara.  (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

Winds were reported to be 10-15 mph in the area of the fire.

According to the Montecito Fire Protection District, residents have been warned that evacuations may be ordered from homes north of Highway 192/East Valley Road between Coyote Road and Buena Vista Drive and south of East Camino Cielo (Evacuation Zones 3, 4 and 5). Zone 2, farther west, was added to the warning list at 10:30 a.m. 

Scroll down for a map of the evacuation zones. 

Some 4,500 people are affected by the evacuation warning, Zaniboni said. 

East Camino Cielo was closed between Painted Cave Road and Gibraltar Road, and West Mountain Drive to Gibraltar Road.

Fire hoses and gear for the hot shot hand crews sit on top of the ridge just before fire crews descended. Click to view larger
Fire hoses and gear for the hot shot hand crews sit on top of the ridge just before fire crews descended. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Evacuation warnings are in effect until 8 a.m. Friday morning unless something changes, as are road closures.

Cold Spring School at 2243 Sycamore Canyon Rd. and Montecito Union School at 385 San Ysidro Rd. both canceled school Thursday because of the fire, according to office personnel. 

No Santa Barbara Unified School District sites have been closed and Westmont College is within an evacuation zone on warning status but held classes as usual. 

Helicopters were using Westmont’s Lovik Field to refill with water and make more drops on the fire. 

The Gibraltar Fire was holding at 50 acres and federal air tankers played a key role, Los Padres National Forest officials said. Click to view larger
The Gibraltar Fire was holding at 50 acres and federal air tankers played a key role, Los Padres National Forest officials said.  (Los Padres National Forest photo)

“Westmont’s Fire Brigade is on patrol,” college officials posted on the official Twitter account. There is a water tender on standby and a “generator in the gym is hooked up and ready if campus community needs to shelter in place as we did safely during 2008 Tea Fire.” 

Crews from the Montecito, Santa Barbara City, Santa Barbara County, Los Padres Padres National ForestCarpinteria/Summerland, CalFIRE and Vandenberg Air Force Base fire departments were on the scene.

Officers from the California Highway Patrol and the Sheriff’s and Santa Barbara Police departments are assisting with traffic control and firefighting equipment is staging at the Santa Barbara Cemetery.

The cause of the blaze remained under investigation.

Thursday’s weather conditions were not expected to help the battle against the blaze.

Unified Command for the Gibraltar Fire set up at the Montecito Fire Protection District headquarters. Click to view larger
Unified Command for the Gibraltar Fire set up at the Montecito Fire Protection District headquarters.  (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

The National Weather Service is forecasting strong, gusty winds for the region, with the most powerful below canyons and passes of the Santa Ynez Mountains — especially in Montecito.

A Wind Advisory is in effect until 5 a.m. Friday, with north winds of 15-30 mph and gusts to 50 mph.

Daytime temperatures are expected to climb into the mid-90s along the South Coast, with high temperatures near 90 on Friday.

“On any other day, without the predicted winds, we’d feel really good about this,” Zaniboni said.

Fire crews are expecting heavy winds down the canyons Thursday afternoon and the treacherous terrain means the air support will be the best way to knock down the fire, he said. 

“We’re planning for the worst but hoping for the best.”

All animals (large and small) were being evacuated to the Santa Barbara Humane Society at 5399 Overpass Road in Santa Barbara. 

The Santa Barbara County Animal Services has a hotline at 805.681.4332. 

If help is needed to evacuate animals, people can contact the Santa Barbara County Animal Services hotline and they will coordinate assistance in evacuation.

Check back with Noozhawk for updates.

Click here to sign up for free Noozhawk text alerts to your cell phone.

Staff writers Lara Cooper and Gina Potthoff reported from the scene.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli 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.

Gibraltar Fire Drop from Noozhawk on Vimeo.

Hot shot crews hike into the Montecito Peak area to help create firelines. Click to view larger
Hot shot crews hike into the Montecito Peak area to help create firelines. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)
Evacuation Zones 2, 3, 4 and 5 in Montecito were put on warning status Thursday due to the Gibraltar Fire in the hills. Click to view larger
Evacuation Zones 2, 3, 4 and 5 in Montecito were put on warning status Thursday due to the Gibraltar Fire in the hills.  (Montecito Fire Protection District map)
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