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Incident Commanders ponder use of perimeter fires to contain the rapidly expanding fire.

Ray Ford

Incident Commanders ponder use of perimeter fires to contain the rapidly expanding fire.


Zaca Fire Team Meets with Mission Canyon Residents

Incident Commander Confirms Plans to Burn


Author’s note: In yesterday’s afternoon version of the evolving Zaca Fire story, the headline noted the Incident Management Team had decided to burn out a perimeter around the uncontrolled portions of the fire, an area more than 200,000 acres in size that included the entire Dick Smith Wilderness. Later in the day, because I wanted to make sure the facts were accurate, the aspects of the story were changed to note that the fire officials were considering these options. At last night’s meeting, both in the public presentation and conversations afterward with Bill Molumby, officials confirmed they will soon begin using fire to circle the perimeter.

At a meeting in Fleischmann Auditorium in the Museum of Natural History Friday evening, an overflow crowd was provided an overview of the fire, emergency response information and information about the Team’s strategic plans for controlling the Zaca Fire. Currently more than 80,000 acres have burned at a cost that will surpass $60 million today.

MODIS Map

Overview of fire area using MODIS (geomac.usgs.gov) shows the fire perimeter and challenges facing fire command as they try to figure out what they can use as “anchors” to work from. Because the fire is starting to expand rapidly in Indian Canyon, the Alamar drainage and is heading towards Mono Creek, the strategy is now to circle the fire and use burn techniques to deprive the fire of fuel.

Both Incident Commander Bill Molumby and Los Padres Acting Forest Supervisor Ken Heffner addressed concerns about how fire fighters would be able to stop the fire from crossing the Santa Ynez River and moving closer to Santa Barbara.

Without disclosing specifics, it was clear that the Team would expand their use of “back burning” techniques to circle the fire and get it under control. Citing the immediate need to turn the fire away from Santa Barbara and to establish control before the September fire season is upon us, Molumby emphasized the need to be proactive rather than be on the defensive.

With drought conditions at their worst in years, the fire is moving into country that is almost impossible to fight on the ground, and with the Fall fire season approaching, efforts to circle the fire with a “black” perimeter” will begin as soon as conditions permit.

In the Richardson Zone, which includes the Sisquoc River and Sierra Madres west of Big Pine Mountain and along the forest district boundaries on the east, burn operations could begin as early as this weekend on the Sierra Madre ridge.

MODIS Map With Perimeter Added

Depiction of the perimeter as accurately as possible given any burns could change from day to day depending on weather, wind, fire conditions and such. Fire officials feel efforts need to be made in a proactive manner to get the fire out before weather conditions change in September. Note the rugged, broken character of the landscape into which the fire is burning.

The most difficult part of developing a line they can burn from may be in the upper Sisquoc drainage. Currently, north operations is looking for ridge lines south of Cottonwood Canyon they can use to stop the fire from continuing down the Sisquoc. If they can tie in a line from the Sierra Madres down into the Sisquoc and then south up to Mission Pine, this will allow them to establish control and focus efforts to the east.

From the Sierra Madre crest, the perimeter set as the potential burn area follows dozer lines down into Santa Barbara Canyon, continues east along a jeep and OHV route just west of Cuyama Peak to Highway 33, follows Highway 33 for several miles to the Pine Mountain turnoff and then continues on the Jeepway to Potrero Seco and south along the Santa Barbara/Ventura county line to Monte Arido.

In the Live Oak Zone, depending on the winds, the burn operation could begin by Monday. The area considered on the south end would begin roughly along the front face of Little Pine Mountain, drop down across Buckhorn Road and down Camuesa Creek, along the south edges of Indian, Mono, and Agua Caliente creeks, and then follow Pendola Jeepway up to the Monte Arido ridgetop.

Molumby stressed that the operation would take several weeks, would not be done all at once, and would be adjusted on a day-by-day basis to changing fire patterns, weather conditions, and opportunities that might arise to attack the fire directly.

In response to one question concerning impacts on the wildlife, watershed values, and other resources Molumby described what might be termed a “scientific approach” to the burn operations.

By Ray Ford

Note use of back firing techniques used here on Alexander Saddle. Firefighters have initiated a burn on the back side of the saddle to develop a primary column that will be used to draw fire set on the front edge of the ridge towards it. As the new fire is set and begins to build its own column (flames and smoke to the left), because the main plume is large enough in size it gradually sucks the column on the left towards it.

We don’t just circle the fire and let it burn inward. Nor do we burn from the bottom.” he explained. “Using torches mounted on helicopters, we’ll light a line of fire across the upper slopes after we’ve established a secure break on the top and have lined the ridge with water and retardant. Then we’ll gradually bring the fire down the hill in stages.”

With use of helicopters to initiate the fire, incident commanders have the ability to be pinpoint what burns, carving out sections almost like a surgeon. “These are not intense burns,” Molumby added. “They leave a patchwork; probably not more than 60-70% will burn.”

Use of fire through “burn outs” and “back firing” techniques have been used effectively by by the Forest Service for years. Most recently, the techniques were used on the far northwest end of the fire to secure the Sisquoc line and in the past week in the Peachtree and Santa Cruz drainage to develop containment there.

With the fire expanding rapidly, it seems use of such techniques to circle the fire is not a choice but a necessity.

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