Friday, July 20 , 2018, 3:31 pm | Fair 75º


Local News

‘Wind Event’ Expected Saturday May Prove Pivotal in Battle to Stop Thomas Fire

Incident commanders hope containment line carved up San Ysidro Canyon will keep flames out of Montecito and other populated areas

A Sikorsky S-61 drops Phos-Chek onto a hillside Friday in San Ysidro Canyon above Montecito.
A Sikorsky S-61 drops Phos-Chek onto a hillside Friday in San Ysidro Canyon above Montecito.  (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

This story was last updated at 9:28 p.m. Friday.

With gusty overnight winds forecast for the coastal mountains on Saturday morning, firefighters were preparing for perhaps their biggest test in the battle to stop the giant Thomas Fire from burning further west and continuing to menace communities on Santa Barbara County’s South Coast.

The primary battle is being fought in San Ysidro Canyon behind Montecito, where hand crews on Friday spent the day carving out a containment line up the rugged west side of the canyon to Camino Cielo on the ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

They were assisted by a fleet of helicopters dropping loads of fire retardant on the dense and extremely dry vegetation.

“Our direct attack is working,” said Chris Childers, a battalion chief with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “We have gotten to the creek. It (the fire) has not crossed it.”

What is worrying incident commanders on the 259,000-acre blaze is a “wind event” expected to hit in the early morning hours Saturday, bringing strong northwest winds that could drive the flames downslope into populated areas.

The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Fire Weather Warning for the Santa Barbara County mountains beginning at 2 a.m Saturday, and continuing until 10 p.m. Saturday.

“We have aircraft hitting it really hard right now,” Childers said at a community meeting Friday afternoon at San Marcos High School near Goleta. “And we have the direct line, at least, getting into that creek and trying to wrap around it and get an underslung line underneath it so we can start heading up the hill toward Camino Cielo.

“This is some terribly difficult, challenging country, and whether or not we can hold it in there, especially in the face of this morning’s wind event reports, we’re not sure if we can.”

In a worst-case scenario, the fire would burn down into Montecito proper, where more than 100 fire engines are in place to defend structures, Childers said, adding that more than 100 additional engines are staged near by to assist, and officials are prepared to call in off-duty firefighters to help.

“Just in case our lines don’t hold, and a firestorm comes into town, we have more people coming in there than you can imagine, and it’s going to be a massive firefight, and we’re ready for it,” Childers said.

Rocky Opliger, a member of the incident management team, said crews are ready and waiting.

“It’s a waiting game,” he added, “but we’re in so much better position than we were two or three days ago, because the hotshot crews went in there and established a fire’s edge.

“It was going to be tested at some point, and I’d rather have it when I have all the resources there.”

Added Childers, “If we hold this tonight, if we hold this tomorrow, we’re going to be looking pretty good.”

Containment of the fire, which began Dec. 4, stood at 40 percent Saturday morning, with a portion of that along the Carpinteria foothills.

Opliger said some evacuation areas to the south of that line likely would be reduced soon. 

“We just want to be cautious about the wind,” he said. “And I know that’s an inconvenience. But we also know the holidays are here, and we want to get people back in.”

Sheriff Bill Brown said Friday that residents are being allowed back into areas on the east end of the Carpinteria Valley, including Shepard Mesa and Gobernador Canyon, but a mandatory evacuation order remains in effect, so people should be vigilant. 

Click here for evacuation updates in Santa Barbara County.

On the northwest flank of the fire, in the upper Santa Ynez River drainage, good progress has been made, largely by guiding the flames toward the burn scare from the 2007 Zaca Fire, Childers said.

“The backcountry hopefully will be tied in in the next day or two,” he added.

Capt. Brendan Ripley, a fire behavior analyst with the Ventura County Fire Department, explained that the winds expected Saturday were different than the Santa Ana winds that have fanned much of the fire thus far.

Coming from the northwest, he said, they align with many of the canyons, creating ideal conditions for pushing flames downslope.

Typically countering those winds, he said, is the influence of marine air off the ocean. How strong each of those forces is will have a big impact on what happens with the fire.

Bottom line, Ripley said, is Saturday likely will prove pivotal in the firefight:

“At 10 p.m., we’ll see where we end up and where the fire ends up,” he said. “Our hope is the marine influence holds, and will keep those winds from mixing down into the front country where the population is.”

The Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management said Friday that strong winds are expected between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. Saturday, and "these winds will increase fire intensity."

People in mandatory evacuation areas are asked not to return, and people in evacuation warning areas should be prepared to leave at a moment's notice, officials said. 

"All communities east of Highway 154, including Santa Barbara, Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria, should be on high alert and ready," they said. 

Scroll down to view the interactive evacuation map for Santa Barbara County, including evacuation-order (mandatory evacuation) and evacuation-warning (voluntary evacuation) areas. 

There is an evacuation shelter open at the UCSB Recreation Center and animal evacuations can be coordinated 

Animal evacuation shelters are available for residents in evacuation zones, according to Santa Barbara County officials. 

Earl Warren Showgrounds is accepting evacuated animals, and people are asked to contact the Animal Services hotline at 805.681.4332 to coordinate shelter for small and large animals. 

Strong winds Friday night and Saturday morning could cause additional power outages, and residents who need to evacuate should prepare for the possibility of leaving in the dark, the county said. 

Advice to residents included: 

» Make sure that you can access your vehicle. Know where the manual release lever of your electric garage door opener is located and how to operate it, or just leave your car parked outside.

» Keep your hallways free of obstructions.

» Have flashlights ready and your important items packed in your vehicle.

» Keep your electronic devices fully charged, and have a battery backup power source available.

» Unplug as many devices as you can, and turn off any lights that were turned on when you lost power.  If you can just leave one light switched on, it will help responders know when they have been successful in restoring your electricity.

» Leave a note on your front door or mailbox saying that you’ve evacuated, so that the sheriff doesn’t waste valuable time waiting for you to answer the door.

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Click here for current N-95 mask distribution sites and air quality information.

For Thomas Fire fire response information, check the Santa Barbara County and Ventura County websites

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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