Wednesday, June 20 , 2018, 11:25 pm | Fair 63º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Wind-Whipped Sherpa Fire Surges to 1,200 Acres, Threatens Structures Along Gaviota Coast

Evacuations ordered for Refugio, Las Flores, Venadito canyons and El Capitán; Highway 101 reopened after overnight closure

Flames from the Sherpa Fire, which began in Refugio Canyon, approach the oil and gas processing plant in Las Flores Canyon late Wednesday. Click to view larger
Flames from the Sherpa Fire, which began in Refugio Canyon, approach the oil and gas processing plant in Las Flores Canyon late Wednesday. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

[Click here for a related Noozhawk photo gallery.]

[Click here for latest story on the fire]

A wind-driven wildfire that began high in Refugio Canyon remained out of control Thursday, threatening scores of homes and an oil-processing facility and forcing wide-spread evacuations along the Gaviota coast.

At 7 a.m., the Sherpa Fire had charred an estimated 1,200 acres and was 0 percent contained, according to Capt. Dave Zaniboni of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

"High winds fanned the fire late Wednesday night and caused it to grow very quickly," Zaniboni said, adding that flames had burned within a quarter mile of Highway 101.

U.S. Forest Service spokesman Andrew Madsen told Noozhawk Thursday morning that at least 400 people were working the fire with many more requested.

Air tankers were preparing to start work again, hoping to “buy enough time here today before the winds this evening,” he said.

An aerial view of the Sherpa Fire burning Wednesday evening in Refugio Canyon on the Gaviota coast. As of 1 a.m. Thursday, the fire had burned 1,100 acres. Click to view larger
An aerial view of the Sherpa Fire burning Wednesday evening in Refugio Canyon on the Gaviota coast. As of 1 a.m. Thursday, the fire had burned 1,100 acres. (Mark Nunez / Air Attack 07 photo)

The blaze was so strong it burned right through retardant lines "like a blowtorch," he said.  

“I think the concern is holding that thing on the eastern and western flanks and there is really old, dead, heavy fuel out there,” Madsen said.

Winds pushed the fire straight south, toward the ocean, he said, but then it became fuel-driven again once the gusts subsided.

He knew of no damaged structures or injuries as of Thursday morning.

An air tanker makes a drop of fire retardant on the Sherpa Fire burning Wednesday afternoon in Refugio Canyon on the Gaviota coast. Click to view larger
An air tanker makes a drop of fire retardant on the Sherpa Fire burning Wednesday afternoon in Refugio Canyon on the Gaviota coast. (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)

Highway 101, which was shut down in both directions overnight, was reopened at about 7:30 a.m. It may close again, with little warning, if conditions change, officials said. 

The fire, of unknown cause, was menacing the Las Flores Canyon oil and gas processing facility Wednesday night; the plant has been idle and largely vacant since last year’s Refugio oil pipeline leak.

The facility was protected from the fire overnight, since there is good clearance around the structures, Madsen said. “Once there’s a good burn around the exterior that particular concern will be alleviated.”

Evacuations were ordered for El Capitán Canyon as well as at El Capitán State Beach, and fire crews were being redeployed to the fire’s eastern flank late Wednesday night.

Earlier Wednesday, authorities had issued mandatory evacuation orders for the Refugio Canyon, Las Flores Canyon and Venadito Canyon Road areas, including the oil and gas processing facility, and sent out about 250 emergency notifications through the 9-1-1 system to nearby residents.

An evacuation warning was issued Thursday morning for the area between El Capitán Canyon and Farren Road. 

Anyone in evacuation areas that needs help with animals should call Santa Barbara County Animal Services at 805.681.4332. 

A Santa Barbara County fire engine heads up Refugio Canyon Road toward the Sherpa Fire, which broke out Wednesday afternoon about seven miles north of Refugio State Beach. The fire had charred more than 1,100 acres as of early Thursday. Click to view larger
A Santa Barbara County fire engine heads up Refugio Canyon Road toward the Sherpa Fire, which broke out Wednesday afternoon about seven miles north of Refugio State Beach. The fire had charred more than 1,100 acres as of early Thursday. (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)

A Red Cross evacuation shelter was opened at the Wake Center, 300 N. Turnpike Road near Goleta, and evacuated livestock were being taken to Earl Warren Showgrounds, 3400 Calle Real in Santa Barbara. 

Dozens of horses also were being evacuated from the area.

Refugio State Beach campground was also evacuated, with a bus sent by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department for campers who had no transportation of their own, county communications manager Gina DePinto said.

Another evacuation shelter was set up at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, 2975 E. Highway 246 in Santa Ynez, for Refugio campers and other northbound people. That shelter was put on standby mode Thursday and won't open unless conditions change, authorities said. 

The county activated its Emergency Operations Center late Wednesday and created a fire information page.

The blaze was dubbed the Sherpa Fire because it started at Rancho La Scherpa, a Christian conference center. (The spelling disparity was a Forest Service decision.)

“Winds have calmed up here although there are still predicted sundowner winds for later this evening,” Zaniboni said at about 8 p.m.

The fire burned in heavy brush in a southeasterly direction down the canyon, away from the ridgetop toward the ocean.

Aircraft were dropping water and retardant on the blaze until nightfall, and more firefighting resources were expected to arrive throughout the night, he said.

Refugio Canyon Road was closed completely, as was Calle Real between El Capitán and Refugio.

Santa Barbara County and U.S. Forest Service crews were dispatched at about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday to the blaze, which originally was reported in the 2500 block of Refugio Canyon Road, about seven winding miles north of Refugio State Beach.

The first units on the scene reported an active fire near the ridge line.

“We’re going at it with everything we’ve got,”​ Madsen said.

Some 250 fire personnel were assigned to the blaze, Zaniboni said Wednesday night.

Resources assigned to the fire during the day included three helicopters and eight air tankers, including a giant DC-10 jet aircraft, Madsen said.

Also assisting in the fire fight were crews from the Santa Barbara, Montecito and Vandenberg Air Force Base fire departments.

“The last I heard, it was 50 acres, but I’m sure it’s more than that,”​ Zaniboni told Noozhawk shortly before 6 p.m.

A half-hour later, he said, the total had jumped to 150 acres and was growing.

At that point, the blaze was burning down the canyon, being driven by strong down-slope winds, Zaniboni said.

At about 7 p.m., strike teams of brush trucks were ordered to protect structures in the threatened areas.

Crews on the scene reported relatively light winds, but a wind advisory is in effect for the South Coast mountain areas until 6 a.m. Thursday. The advisory calls for winds of 15-25 mph, with gusts to 40 mph.

The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department and the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District issued an Air Quality Warning on Thursday for the southern areas of Santa Barbara County. The warning will remain in effect through the weekend unless conditions change.

"If you see or smell smoke in the air, be cautious and use common sense to protect your and your family’s health," the agencies said in a release.

"Everyone, especially people with heart or lung disease (including asthma), older adults, and children, should limit time spent outdoors and avoid outdoor exercise when high concentrations of smoke and particles are in the air."

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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.

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