Diminishing sundowner winds allowed the gathering army of firefighters combating the Gap Fire to make serious progress along the southeastern edge of the inferno late Saturday night. The fire continued to grow, but at a much slower rate. As of 6 a.m. Sunday, July 6, the fire covered 9,367 acres, an increase of about 600 acres from the previous 12 hours. In the most striking sign of progress, evacuation orders were rescinded for Goleta residents living on nine streets near North Patterson Avenue in Goleta, downgraded back to a mere “evacuation warning” to stay prepared and alert for a possible order. Today, firefighters will redouble their efforts to “button up” the fire’s eastern rim in the North Patterson area to ensure that it the neighborhood is completely out of danger.
All of Saturday night’s expansion occurred on the fire’s western flank, to both the north and the south. The bulk of that increase-to the northwest-involves Forest Service land that’s unsettled, uninhabited, and uncivilized. But at the same time it extends the stretch of Camino Cielo road vulnerable to penetration should the winds shift suddenly. The West Camino Cielo Road ridgeline has been the Gap Fire’s northernmost limit, and fire officials urgently want to ensure that line does not give. Up till now, firefighters have been assisted in that effort by the evening sundowner winds, which have pushed the flames down the hillsides and canyon bottoms towards Goleta. But weather forecasters are predicting increasingly diminished sundowners tonight. That means the daytime winds that push the flames up the mountain sides (away from Goleta, but toward Camino Cielo) will go largely unopposed for the first time since the fire began six days ago.
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On the inferno’s southwest front, flames encroached sufficiently into Winchester Canyon that a new evacuation warning was issued a little after midnight to all residents of Eagle Canyon, Dos Pueblos Ranch, and Santa Barbara Ranch north of Highway 101. This area, as well as the Painted Cave and Trout Club neighborhoods along the north-eastern front of the fire-where residents who have refused evacuation orders are expressing a degree of relief-will be the focus of substantial clean-up work to make sure the fire doesn’t return.
The key objective remains the same today: to keep the fire contained within Camino Cielo to the north, Old San Marcos Road to the east, Cathedral Oaks to the south and Winchester Canyon to the west.
Forest Service officials estimate the Gap Fire is 27 percent contained, up from 24 percent yesterday morning. Firefighters stress that these numbers can change in a heartbeat if the winds shift suddenly. Yesterday, the fire’s cost was estimated at $2.5 million; today the figure is $6.1 million. The total number of personnel assigned to fight the Gap Fire is currently 1,188. Today, 16 helicopters will be deployed in the aerial assault on the Gap Fire, a substantial increase from yesterday, though the number of airplanes is expected to stay the same, 10. At present, 211 engines, 22 bulldozers, and 510 hot shot firefighters are deployed in the effort. Hot Shots work on hand crews and are the fire fighting equivalent of the Green Beret or the Navy Seals, working in the brush in advance of bulldozers, whose function is to clear huge fuel-free paths in the middle of the back country to slow down the fire’s rate of advance and help starve it to death.
By Paul Wellman