Tuesday, November 13 , 2018, 7:48 pm | Fair 58º

 
 
 
 

Crews Battling Sherpa Fire Catch a Break as Winds Fall Short of Forecast

Blaze along Gaviota coast, which had burned 7,648 acres as of Saturday morning, was 45% contained; evacuations still in effect for Refugio Canyon, Las Flores Canyon, El Capitán Canyon areas

A firefighter keeps a watchful eye on flames Friday night on a ridge line near El Capitán Ranch during the Sherpa Fire.
A firefighter keeps a watchful eye on flames Friday night on a ridge line near El Capitán Ranch during the Sherpa Fire. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)
Sherpa Fire map from Saturday morning, June 18. Black line indicates areas of containment. Click to view larger
Sherpa Fire map from Saturday morning, June 18. Black line indicates areas of containment.

[Click here for a related Noozhawk photo gallery.]

 Firefighters battling the Sherpa Fire along the Gaviota coast caught a break Friday night, as expected gusty “sundowner" winds fell short of the intensity that was forecast.

“As of right now, the winds have not kicked up,” said Michelle Carbonaro, a public information officer for the fire, shortly before 10 p.m. “That will allow for crews to make progress through the night. That's when they typically can make their best progress.”

Fire crews had been bracing for a return of the gusty conditions that fanned the blaze the two previous nights, causing the area burned to swell to 7,648 acres as of Saturday morning.

Despite the reprieve, the conditions on the fire lines remained challenging, with rugged terrain and winds of 30 mph in Refugio Canyon and 20-25 mph in Las Flores Canyon late Friday, according to Scott Sukup, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

He also warned that winds were expected to pickup over the next few days, accompanied by a heat wave on Sunday and Monday.

Containment rose to 45 percent, with full containment expected by next Saturday, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Earlier in the day, a local state of emergency was declared for the fire by the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Services.

The declaration was announced at a late-morning news conference by Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr, and the county Board of Supervisors is expected to ratify it on Tuesday.

The move allows all needed county resources to be directed toward battling the blaze, and also is a precursor to a state emergency declaration by the governor if that is needed.

A helicopter makes a water drop Friday on the Sherpa Fire. Click to view larger
A helicopter makes a water drop Friday on the Sherpa Fire. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Fire commanders were keeping a watchful eye on the weather, as the forecast calls for several more days with hot and windy afternoons and nights.

Temperatures were expected to reach the 90s on Sunday and Monday, with very low humidity.

The eastern flank of the fire remained the area of greatest concern on Friday, and that’s where most of the firefighting effort was being focused on Friday.

Down-slope “sundowner” winds whipped up Wednesday and Thursday nights, causing the blaze to move quickly to the southeast.

“When the sundowners do surface, our offensive opportunities are extremely limited, and we need to fall back on more of a defensive strategy,” said Robert Laeng, a Forest Service fire management officer who is one of the incident commanders.

Firefighters, working on the ground and from the air, spent the day building and improving primary and secondary containment lines along the eastern front of the fire, which had not yet reached Gato Canyon as of Friday evening, according to Amber Anderson, a public information officer for the fire.

Smoke from the Sherpa Fire turns the sky red and sillhouettes some firefighters. Click to view larger
Smoke from the Sherpa Fire turns the sky red and sillhouettes some firefighters. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

Fire bosses hoped to push the blaze to the higher elevations, eventually pinching it off and allowing them to reach containment, Laeng told Noozhawk.

Laeng said he was confident, given the expected weather conditions, that crews would be able to halt the fire no later than when it reaches Tecolote Ridge, the beginning of the burn area from the 2008 Gap Fire.

In addition to direct attack on the flames and building containment lines, crews were conducting "firing" operations, deliberately burning sections of vegetation to control the direciton and spread of the fire.

Some of them were producing visible flames and heavy columns of smoke, Anderson said.

More than 1,200 personnel have been assigned to battle the fire, which draws its name from Rancho La Scherpa, a conference center in Refugio Canyon where the blaze began.

Smoke billows from the Sherpa Fire on Friday. Click to view larger
Smoke billows from the Sherpa Fire on Friday.  (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

Officials on Friday confirmed that the fire started on Rancho La Scherpa, but would say only that the specific cause was “under investigation.”

(Two different spellings have been used for the fire’s name: Scherpa, after the point of origin, and Sherpa, which is what the U.S. Forest Service has chosen.)

Two minor injuries to firefighters — lacerations — have been reported.

The aerial fleet assigned to the fire includes two large DC-10s, which are capable of dropping nearly 12,000 gallons of retardant in a single load.

Six other large tanker planes were working the blaze, along with 13 water-dropping helicopters.

The Sherpa Fire burned 7,063 acres and was 24 percent contained as of Saturday morning. Click to view larger
The Sherpa Fire burned 7,063 acres and was 24 percent contained as of Saturday morning.  (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

Two of the helicopters were equipped with night-vision equipment that allows them to be operated in the darkness, when most other aircraft are grounded.

The tankers were operating out of a support base at the Santa Maria Public Airport.

Water for the helicopters was being drawn from nearby agricultural reservoirs.

On Thursday night, the fire, driven by strong, down-slope “sundowner” winds, roared down into El Capitan Canyon.

Crews were able to protect the various homes, cabins and other structures in the canyon, but the water system for El Capitan State Park was seriously damaged by flames, according to Eric Hjelstrom,  the State Parks superintendent who oversees the park.

Firefighters take shelter behind an engine as flames approach near El Capitán State Beach Thursday night. Click to view larger
Firefighters take shelter behind an engine as flames approach near El Capitán State Beach Thursday night.  (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

The water system is high up in El Capitan Canyon and includes a well, a water-treatment system and a large metal storage tank.

The fire destroyed the treatment system, leading to an undetermined delay in re-opening the state park and campground, which were evacuated and shut down Wednesday night.

Asked if the park, with 140 campsites and three group areas, would reopen this summer, Hjelstrom said he will do everything he can to get it back in business as soon as possible.

“But,” he added, “at this point nothing surprises me.”

Cathy Fisher, county agricultural commissioner, said farmers and ranchers have taken a hit from the fire, including avocado, lemon and olive growers, and cattle ranchers. The damage levels were being assessed, she said.

Agricultural resource damage assessments were underway and the county established an email helpline for affected farmers and ranchers: [email protected]

Fire crews battling the Sherpa Fire on Friday. Click to view larger
Fire crews battling the Sherpa Fire on Friday. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

The fire, which started at about 3:15 p.m. Wednesday near Refugio Road, caused mandatory evacuations of Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach campgrounds along with areas in Refugio Canyon, Las Flores Canyon, Venadito Canyon, Canada de la Destiladera and El Capitan Canyon. El Capitan Ranch and Ocean Mesa at El Capitan were also evacuated. 

Evacuation warnings areas, where people should be prepared to evacuate if necessary, include Las Llagas Canyon, Gato Canyon, Dos Pueblos Canyon, Eagle Canyon and Farren Road.

At the press conference, Sheriff Bill Brown strongly urged residents in affected areas to heed the evacuation orders and warnings.

Charred terrain from the Sherpa Fire is framed by a sign for El Capitán Ranch, which was threatened by flames Friday night. Click to view larger
Charred terrain from the Sherpa Fire is framed by a sign for El Capitán Ranch, which was threatened by flames Friday night. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

While deputies legally can't force people to leave their homes, Brown said, staying after evacuations have been ordered can be perilous — resulting in injury or death.

“We do not evacuate areas unnecessarily or lightly, and if you are given the order to evacuate, that means that you are in a location where there is an imminent or existing threat to life or property, and you need to leave that area immediately,” Brown said.

No additional evacuation orders or warnings were anticipated Friday night, Carbonaro said.

All horses and other large livestock were being moved out of Earl Warren Showgrounds because the facility is hosting a horse show next week, according to the county.

Anyone who needs assistance with animals can call 805.681.4332 and get a place to put their animals on a case-by-case basis, officials said.

Highway 101, which was shut down Wednesday and Thursday night as down-slope winds pushed flames to the roadway's edge, was expected to remain open Friday night.

An air-quality warning was issued Thursday as smoke from the fire stretched throughout the South Coast, almost obscuring the view of the Santa Ynez Mountains from Santa Barbara on an otherwise clear, sunny day. 

Everyone should limit their time outdoors, especially people with heart or lung disease, older adults and children, the Air Pollution Control District said.

The smoke caused air-quality advisories to be issued for Ventura, Los Angeles and Orange counties. 

Unified Command of the fire is handled by the county Fire Department, U.S. Forest Service and CalFire.

The county’s Emergency Operations Center has been activated, and a base camp for the firefighting effort has been set up at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta.

Click here to sign up for county emergency alerts through the Aware & Prepare program.

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

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.

Flames and smoke boil up from the Sherpa Fire on Friday. Click to view larger
Flames and smoke boil up from the Sherpa Fire on Friday. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Email
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership
×

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.