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All-Out Aerial Attack Credited With Slowing Mountaintop Gibraltar Fire

Fleet of tankers and helicopters was able to keep 50-acre blaze in check, protecting communities below the fire; containment at 50%

Ten tankers dropped a total of 85,000 gallons of fire retardant on the Gibraltar Fire Thursday to draw a containment line around the 50-acre blaze.
Ten tankers dropped a total of 85,000 gallons of fire retardant on the Gibraltar Fire Thursday to draw a containment line around the 50-acre blaze.  (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

A large and aggressive aerial attack is being credited with preventing Thursday’s vegetation fire near Montecito Peak from roaring down the mountain and threatening homes in Santa Barbara and Montecito.

“We had an unbelievable amount of aircraft,” Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Pat McElroy told Noozhawk late Thursday afternoon at the fire command post at Earl Warren Showgrounds.

U.S. Forest Service officials were able to quickly mobilize a large fleet of aerial tankers that laid down a swath of fire retardant around the 50-acre Gibraltar Fire, which broke out shortly after 5 a.m.

Fire officials had been concerned that north winds could push the flames down Cold Springs and San Ysidro Canyons, McElroy said.

But the red-orange fire retardant coating the mountainside, which was clearly visible from the communities below, kept the fire in check and allowed engine and hand crews to knock down the flames.

Fire officials remained concerned Thursday night that expected windy conditions — with potential gusts to 50 mph — could whip up the flames again, sending ember across the parched chaparral.

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 Thursday afternoon. 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 Thursday afternoon. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

But they seemed cautiously optimistic that they had dodged the bullet of a large conflagration.

As of 8 a.m. Friday, the fire had charred about 50 acres — a lower estimate than officials had given earlier in the day based on improved aerial mapping.

Containment was pegged at 50 percent.

"We had some pretty good winds up there last night that tested those containment lines, but everything held together," said Andrew Madsen, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. "We're real optimistic that we've kind of turned they corner on this."

The cause of the fire remained under investigation, Madsen said.

Firefighters were able to string hose lines to the fire, allowing them to put water on hot spots and improve containment lines, according to Amber Anderson, a fire inspector with the Santa Barbara City Fire Department who was working as a public information officer for the fire.

Strike teams from multiple agencies, including the Ventura County Fire Department, are stationed at Earl Warren Showgrounds in case winds shift Thursday night. Click to view larger
Strike teams from multiple agencies, including the Ventura County Fire Department, are stationed at Earl Warren Showgrounds in case winds shift Thursday night.  (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

“We don’t usually get to do that,” she noted.

Aircraft stopped flying as darkness fell, but engine and hand crews were to remain on scene through the night, Anderson said.

Some 4,500 residents in Montecito remained under evacuation warnings overnight, but those were lifted at 8 a.m. Friday, Madsen said.

Road closures in the area are still in effect Friday, with East Camino Cielo closed between Painted Cave Road and Gibraltar Road, and West Mountain Drive at Gibraltar Road. 

Fire resources were being released, and about 250 personnel remained assigned to the fire, Madsen said, including 10 engines, four bulldozers, four water tenders and four hand crews.

Four air tankers were being kept on standby, and eight helicopters were still battling the blaze, Madsen said.

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.

A fleet of helicopters headed to the Montecito Peak area to drop water all day Thursday, filling up from various areas in southern Santa Barbara County. Click to view larger
A fleet of helicopters headed to the Montecito Peak area to drop water all day Thursday, filling up from various areas in southern Santa Barbara County.  (Steve Kennedy photo)
A map at the command post shows the topography of the Gibraltar Fire area, including Cold Springs and San Ysidro Canyons, which fire officials had worred could be susceptible if the blaze was pushed downhill by the wind.. Click to view larger
A map at the command post shows the topography of the Gibraltar Fire area, including Cold Springs and San Ysidro Canyons, which fire officials had worred could be susceptible if the blaze was pushed downhill by the wind..  (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)
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