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Ray Ford: Big Day on Thomas Fireline — Battle for San Ysidro Canyon

Success in canyon behind Montecito — a big if — would eliminate need for larger and riskier firing operation

Flames from a firing operation underway Thursday afternoon behind a home off Ladera Lane near Bella Vista Drive behind Summerland. Fire officials say San Ysidro Canyon may be key to stopping the Thomas Fire before it heads farther west. Click to view larger
Flames from a firing operation underway Thursday afternoon behind a home off Ladera Lane near Bella Vista Drive behind Summerland. Fire officials say San Ysidro Canyon may be key to stopping the Thomas Fire before it heads farther west. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

This story was last updated at 3:12 p.m.

The effort to end the Thomas Fire’s slow but steady western movement along the front country canyons immediately behind Montecito could come to an end Thursday if firefighters are successful in containing it in San Ysidro Canyon.

That is a “big” if.

The good news is that the fire is showing minimal growth on the majority of the fire perimeter, which now has grown to more than 220 miles in length.

To the north, where the fire has bumped up against the Zaca Fire scar, there has been no movement the past two days. It appears likely the fire can be held southeast of the Pendola Jeepway and will not make it to Diablo Canyon or into the Agua Caliente drainage. 

East of Monte Arido and north of Matilija Canyon, the fire has shown some movement towards Highway 33 but not much.

On Wednesday, there was also a lot of fire activity between Highway 150 and the west side of Lake Casitas, but that is locked into areas that have burned out in previous days.

Though there were several slop overs on the back side of Toro Saddle just above the Camuesa jeepway, and one 5-acre spot closer to the Santa Ynez River, it appears that these will be out soon given the amount of air support now available to support crews on the fire line.

The Battle for San Ysidro Canyon

What things now boil down to is what one person called “the battle for San Ysidro Canyon.”

A helicopter battling the Thomas Fire picks up a load of retardant at a re-filling station set up near the Bridge to Nowhere over Highway 154 near Santa Barbara on Thursday. Click to view larger
A helicopter battling the Thomas Fire picks up a load of retardant at a re-filling station set up near the Bridge to Nowhere over Highway 154 near Santa Barbara on Thursday. (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)

Wednesday night the fire began to works its way down into the upper part of San Ysidro, and by 6 a.m. was established along ridgelines on both sides of the lower canyon, possibly just a few hundred yards above the point where the Edison Jeepway turns west and heads towards Hot Springs Canyon and the canyon hiking trail begins.

Crews are now positioning themselves at the base of San Ysidro Canyon to go “direct” on the fire. The goal is to create sufficient space to allow them to fire out the canyon and create enough black space to contain any fire coming down at them. 

Thus far it appears if firefighters are successful in closing off the lower canyon to fire coming from above, the major threat to the Montecito community may have been averted.

With conditions in both Toro and Romero Canyons stabilized, minimal fire in the upper part of Buena Vista Canyon, and no real potential for the fire to spot over from the north side of the mountains into Cold Spring Canyon, the fate of the Thomas Fire may be as much about how the effort goes in San Ysidro Canyon as anywhere else.

Getting the Right Winds

Firing out in the lower part of San Ysidro will be as much about having the wind at the back of the firefighters as their skill in doing it right. Several days ago, as I watched a strike team from Santa Barbara County Fire conducting a firing operation on the west ridge above Santa Monica Canyon, what had been a west flowing breeze shifted back to the east, providing them the cover they needed to light their drip torches and take the fire east down into Santa Monica.

The past two days the crews have had the wind with them most of the time when they’ve needed it. Hopefully that will also be true today.

Flames from the Thomas Fire burn in San Ysidro Canyon early Thursday. Fire officials say San Ysidro Canyon may be key to stopping the blaze before it heads farther west. Click to view larger
Flames from the Thomas Fire burn in San Ysidro Canyon early Thursday. Fire officials say San Ysidro Canyon may be key to stopping the blaze before it heads farther west. (Urban HIkers / Noozhawk photo)

If firefighters are unable to hold the fire within San Ysidro Canyon, or if it spots along the western slopes of the canyon, allowing it to escape into Hot or Cold Spring canyons, what firefighters are calling a “last resort plan” may soon begin.

Should it occur, the plan calls for burning out the remainder of the brush from San Ysidro Canyon to the far western side of Cold Spring and from above the Montecito homes to the top of the crest.

To be successful, it will be absolutely critical that what I overheard one firefighter say are conditions “that will ensure there is absolutely 100-percent certainty it won’t escape the burn area.”

Final Note

The most recent update from the Thomas Incident Team is that conditions in early afternoon Thursday are not favorable to the larger burnout plan.

Most likely that may be due to not having the right wind conditions, which hopefully would provide a light easterly and northerly flow, but it could also be that not all of the hand lines or bulldozer lines are ready for such a burn.

Better that the crews are able to win the battle for San Ysidro Canyon now and eliminate the need for such a large undertaking at some point later.

Noozhawk outdoor writer Ray Ford can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here for his website, SBoutdoors.com. Follow him on Twitter: @riveray. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

A Thomas Fire map shows the latest progression, in purple, and the potential burn out area in southern Santa Barbara County. Click to view larger
A Thomas Fire map shows the latest progression, in purple, and the potential burn out area in southern Santa Barbara County. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)
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