Saturday, February 24 , 2018, 1:16 am | Fair 37º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Ray Ford: Thomas Fire Pushes Along Mountain Crest Above Carpinteria Valley on Sunday

An on-the-ground investigation of Thomas Fire burn areas on Sunday indicates that wind direction will be big factor in Monday's firefight

Smoke from the Thomas Fire darkens the skies in southern Santa Barbara County on Sunday. Click to view larger
Smoke from the Thomas Fire darkens the skies in southern Santa Barbara County on Sunday.  (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

Sunday morning it appeared all hell was breaking loose in the Rincon and Gobernador canyon areas.

The night before the fire line had been miles away burning the upper part of Matilija Canyon north of the Santa Ynez Mountains and advancing south into western Ojai above Lake Casitas.

My report in then was that the fire might be in Ojai the next morning but as I headed home I second guessed that idea.

“It’s way too far away to get there tonight,” I thought as cruised along Highway 150.

But I was way wrong. At the same time I was passing the county line near Rincon Creek, Santa Barbara County Fire Battalion Chief Rob Hazard was sitting on top of Murrietta Divide, also on the county line but 5 air miles north of me.

He was intently watching the advance of the fire front up the head of Matilija Canyon directly towards his position.

“It hit the hillside directly below Old Man Mountain first,” he told me, “then it came right up the Matilija. The wind was pushing the fire pretty hard.”

One of Hazard’s duties that night was to assess the condition of the caretaker’s home at the base of Jameson Reservoir, which appeared that it might be spared given its location directly
below the dam.

A view of the Thomas Fire from Cate School on Sunday, looking toward the soccer fields from the upper buildings. The campus was evacuated and undamaged as of Sunday afternoon. Click to view larger
A view of the Thomas Fire from Cate School on Sunday, looking toward the soccer fields from the upper buildings. The campus was evacuated and undamaged as of Sunday afternoon.  (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

What he could also see were the flames advancing upslope to the south towards Divide Peak, which is directly above the eastern part of Carpinteria. It was clear that if the wind continued to blow towards the crest that it would be on its way down into Rincon and Gobernador canyons by midnight.

Not too long after midnight, the flames began to work their way across the mountain crest, creating havoc for thousands of South Coast residents when the front moved through the area
where the power lines cross to the north side of the mountains. Within an hour, a wide line of fire began to move down into eastern Carpinteria and Highway 150 east of the county line.

By the time I reached the intersection of Highways 150 and 192, dozens of engine crews lined 150 and were spread out throughout the Gobernador Canyon area, dousing flames as they
reached a number of the homes and sitting tight near others should the fire reach them.

I headed up to Cate School and from there could get a better perspective of the fire. A huge thunderhead was building at the mouth of Carpinteria Creek — and from below it appeared the
fire was actually right next to Highway 192.

But from the top of Cate School, it was clear the fire was still further up Steer Creek, the drainage immediately east of Carpinteria Creek and right below me. The closest flames were located on a small outcropping knows as Snowball Mountain, well above Highway 192 but intense enough to create the massive cloud of smoke.

North of the crest

Along with this part of the fire line that was threatening the eastern part of Carpinteria, on the north side, after the fire crested the top of Matilija Canyon, heavy winds continued to push it
west, down towards Jameson Reservoir.

A helicopter picks up water at a reservoir in the foothills above Carpinteria on Sunday. Click to view larger
A helicopter picks up water at a reservoir in the foothills above Carpinteria on Sunday. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

The fire line spread to the north towards the Pendola area and also south along the back side of the Santa Ynez Mountains, advancing to the old Juncal Campground area where the Santa Ynez River crosses the Camuesa Jeepway.

Winds also began to push the fire south up Alder Creek along the backside section of the Franklin Trail and over the crest. From there the fire began a downhill advance towards the
Linden Avenue area and made its way into and down the Sutton Creek drainage threatening the area immediately behind Carpinteria High School.

By 7 a.m. Sunday, flames could be seen on the ridge above Linden Avenue though the main concern was still more towards the Steer Canyon, Gobernador and Rincon areas where the Sutton Creek drainage merges with Carpinteria Creek.

Above me, one of the “heavy lift” helicopters was dipping its huge 500-gallon basket into a small reservoir at the Hilltop Farms in an attempt to stem to fire from advancing further down
Carpinteria Creek.

Thankfully, by mid-morning, things started to take a turn for the better when a wind shift started to push fire the back to the east and uphill towards the Santa Ynez mountains.

This good news was tempered by the fact that the fire line had also advanced west into Santa Monica Canyon and was heading towards Arroyo Paredon, a small canyon separating Santa
Monica from Toro Canyon.

I continued west along Highway 192 to Toro Canyon Road and from there, back east to Toro Canyon Park Road, which leads to the County Park and also a number of private residences
further to the east, several of which are located on the ridge immediately above Santa Monica Canyon.

A large column of smoke rises from a firing operation in the eastern Carpinteria Valley Sunday. Click to view larger
A large column of smoke rises from a firing operation in the eastern Carpinteria Valley Sunday. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

By noon, the fire was advancing west out of Santa Monica to the ridge and it appeared that it might jump into Arroyo Paredon. But the shift in winds allowed the Santa Barbara County crews
to fire off the upper part of the road.

The firing was massive and a bit tricky given the narrow, twisting nature of the road. But the wind held and within a half hour they’d secured the ridge. By 2 p.m., the firefighters had stemmed the western advance of the fire line and conditions in the Gobernador area were improving.

The short-term goal

Once the fire had breached the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the goal for the day had been to keep the fire up in the hills, east of Toro Canyon, and to protect the homes in the areas where
it reached the urban interface.

Early in the morning, it did not appear the strategy would be successful given the offshore winds which had driven the flames downhill into the Carpinteria area. But as the wind shifted and the
burnouts created black space on the west end, things looked much better by the later afternoon.

Should the on-shore wind conditions continue, that strategy may allow firefighters to protect homes in the Montecito and Santa Barbara areas as well.

With enough days of these favorable winds and efforts by the Forest Service to protect the fire from coming over the crest from the backside further to the west, we may survive what is now becoming a major challenge to the South Coast area.

The key on Monday and the next few days will about which way the winds will blow. 

Check with Noozhawk for updated fire coverage and visit the Santa Barbara County emergency website for Thomas Fire updates and evacuation maps.

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.

Santa Barbara County firefighters work on the Thomas Fire in the eastern Carpinteria Valley Sunday. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara County firefighters work on the Thomas Fire in the eastern Carpinteria Valley Sunday.  (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)
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