Firefighters were expressing confidence Friday night that they had gained the upper hand in battling a series of vegetation fires that threatened dozens of structures and forced the evacuation of several neighborhoods north of Lompoc.
The blaze dubbed the Rucker Fire broke out shortly after 2 p.m. in the 2200 block of Rucker Road. The first personnel on scene reported a large tree on fire and possible power lines involved.
In short order, crews determined there actually were up to 10 separate fires, mainly along Harris Grade Road, according to Mike Eliason, a spokesman with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
“The first engines got there and had to triage the situation, and decide which was the biggest threat, which one to attack,” Eliason told Noozhawk.
A second alarm was called shortly after the first, immediately bringing more resources to the scene.
The initial estimate was 100 acres burned, with flames moving rapidly through heavy vegetation and 50-100 structures threatened.
Shortly after 7 p.m., an updated size-up put the area burned at 570 acres with 10 percent containment, Eliason said.
He said crews eventually determined that there were three main components to the blaze: a 36-acre burn near La Purisima Mission, at 2295 Purisima Road; 85 acres blackened along Rucker Road; and 350 acres burned farther north along Harris Grade Road,
By Saturday morning, based on more precise mapping, the total area burned had been reduced to 441 acres, and containment had grown to 60 percent, Eliason said.
Some 150 homes remained threatened by the flames on Saturday, Eliason said.
No injuries were reported, and investigators were still working late Friday to determine the cause of the fires.
By 8 p.m., all evacuation orders had been lifted, although several roads in the area remained closed.
Favorable weather conditions were expected overnight, with lows in the 50s, high humidity and little wind.
“We’re pretty optimistic about the weather tonight,” Eliason said. “We’re hoping this can be put to bed tonight and just be mopping up tomorrow.”
He said minimal structural damage was reported, including a shed on Villa Orilla; a house elsewhere that had debris in the rain gutters that caught fire from flying embers but was quickly extinguished; and another house that had smoke damage as a result of open windows.
Evacuations had been ordered at the height of the fire, as flames were moving rapidly toward neighborhoods north of Lompoc, fanned by winds of 10-15 mph.
The evacuation area extended from Rucker Road east to Harris Grade and north to La Purisma and Cebada Canyon, including all of North Mission Hills and La Purisma Mission, Eliason said.
Communities threatened included Mesa Oaks, Mission Hills and areas to the east and west.
The evacuation order notice was sent to about 890 phone lines, according to the county Sheriff’s Department, which also deployed its Search & Rescue Team.
Sheriff’s personnel also said that Vandenberg Middle School students who live in the Mesa Oaks, Mission Hills, Highlands and Bluffs neighborhoods were not able to ride the bus home from school, and should be picked up at the school’s multipurpose room.
A Red Cross evacuation shelter was opened at Lompoc High School, 515 W. College Ave., according to Santa Barbara County officials.
Anyone with questions about animal evacuations can call county Animal Services at 805.681.4332.
Shortly after 3 p.m., the flames were reported to have jumped Rucker Road, and emergency personnel were ordered to leave the area, according to radio traffic.
Six fixed-wing aircraft and five helicopters were assigned to the blaze, Eliason said, along with 519 fire personnel. Agencies from throughout the tri-counties were called into assist in battling the blaze.
A possible suspect vehicle — a former black-and-white patrol car without markings — was reportedly seen in the area, according to the California Highway Patrol.
However, Eliason said Friday night that that vehicle had been located and apparently was not involved.
An oil plant in the area also was threatened by flames for a time, but was not damaged.
Smoke from the fire was being blown to the southeast, across the western Santa Ynez Valley and the Santa Ynez Mountains, and out into the Santa Barbara Channel, prompting the county to issue an air quality watch until conditions improved.
Levels of smoke and particles, and areas affected, will vary, but people were advised to be cautious and use common sense if they see or smell smoke.
The command post for the fire was being moved to Hancock College’s Lompoc Valley campus, where crews were expected to camp out overnight.
Evacuated residents parked in the Albertsons shopping center, at 1500 N. H St., to watch the firefighting effort and share information after making quick escapes from their homes.
Gloria Black had grabbed insurance papers but little else, she said, as she waited with family.
“The fire’s so close to my street that the police are all there, removing everybody out of the house,” she said. “It’s too close to the house.”
Traffic was blocked on North H Street so some people were attempting to walk several miles to their homes.
“The important thing is life,” Black said. “Not material (things). That’s why we pay insurance.”
Another evacuee said flames were burning across from his Rucker Road residence.
“We’re just praying that everybody’s safe,” Andy Padilla said.
Shannon Blair stood with multiple family members in the parking lot. While they fled with their dog, they weren’t able to find their cat.
“It seemed like every direction I looked, there was a different fire,” she said.
Cynthia and Bob McLain sat on the back of their minivan, assessing whether the smoke cloud was smaller two hours after the fire sparked.
Nearby, leashed dogs Max and Walter wrestled on the ground while the McLains’ cat, Baby Girl, sat in the vehicle.
Cynthia McLain was home alone with the pets, and said a law enforcement officer helped get hefty Max into the minivan as smoke from the fires turned the sky dark as if it was nighttime.
“Thank the Lord that we got out of there,” she said, expressing gratitude for the officer’s help. “I wish I had gotten her name because she was a hero.”
She eventually connected with her husband, who had been working, but the incident served as a reminder they had not prepared for an emergency.
“We need to make a plan,” Bob McLain said.
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Noozhawk North County Editor Janene Scully reported from the scene.
— Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story includes reporting from North County editor Janene Scully. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.
Video by Mike Eliason, Santa Barbara County Fire Department
#RuckerFire-Structures threatened Rucker Rd/Via Orilla. 300 acres/0% containment. pic.twitter.com/zwRL8CJcdN — SBCFireInfo (@EliasonMike) September 29, 2017