WEATHER »

Firefighters Get a Daytime Break

Winds Not as Ferocious as Predicted for Most of the Day; Seems to Be Changing Tonight


Thursday, May 7, 2009

MANDATORY EVACUATION: At 8 p.m., the mandatory evacuation order was extended west, to all residents north of Foothill Road and east of Highway 154. That includes such roads as Cieneguitas, Northridge, and Cocopah.

Firefighters grappling with the Jesusita Fire were pleasantly surprised to find that Thursday's afternoon winds proved nowhere near as explosive as Wednesday's, and nowhere nearly as combustible as predicted. Of course, that was until about 6:30 p.m., when the winds began to whip a little more wildly, and in varying directions. But when it comes to daylight hours, the two fire battles were completely distinct, and Thursday's relative calm allowed for much on-the-ground work to be done.

On Wednesday afternoon, palm fronds were flying parallel to the horizon, blown by 70-mile per hour gusts. The skies were darkened with the heavy black smoke of burning homes and thick brush that hadn't seen fire in 45 years. It was as if a week of Good Fridays had been compressed into one bleak afternoon.

Thursday, according to all weather forecasts, threatened a repeat performance. But the mercury never achieved Wednesday's 100-degree-plus temperatures, and the winds were roughly half as fierce as expected, clocking an estimated 20 to 25 miles per hour, at least until the sun started going down. And those daytime winds were chasing the fire up the mountains and away from populated areas.

Graced with this relative calm during the day, firefighters working on hand crews, always the most vulnerable, did not have to be withdrawn from the field, as they were Wednesday. Likewise, the winds and temperatures allowed the helicopters and fixed-wing air tankers to remain aloft all day as well. And there were considerably more fire fighting machines in the sky: 10 air tankers and 14 helicopters. By contrast, there were only five helicopters and four tankers available Wednesday.

Incident Commander Joe Waterman of CalFire said he now has about all the aircraft he needs to effectively fight the Jesusita Fire. "That's about the load we can safely manage," he said. "We're good on the aircraft." He also said that he expected more troops to arrive sometime tonight or tomorrow, which would push the total number deployed well past its current level of 1,400.

In spite of all this good news, however, Waterman estimated that the fire grew by 500 to 1,000 acres Thursday, sprawling out to 2,000 to 2,500 acres. Containment, he said, remains at zero. (But that number, he predicted, would increase very soon.) Because of this - and predicted weather patterns over the next day-and-a-half - the number of people warned to get ready to evacuate increased by about 1,000 additional households. That brings the rough estimate of those under warning to about 15,000, the same number as those under orders to evacuate. All told, more than 30,000 people have been directly threatened by the Jesusita.

Waterman said he could not yet provide an exact number of homes lost or damaged by the fire, but added it was "in the dozens, not the hundreds." Given yesterday's heat and winds, said County Fire Chief Tom Franklin, the numbers could have been a lot worse. "By all rights, there should have been hundreds lost, not dozens," he said. "A lot of that success goes to the residents. They did what they're supposed to do with their defensible space."

City Fire Battalion Chief Pat McElroy said people evacuated from their homes are understandably anxious to "repopulate their neighborhoods." He asked for continued patience, noting that the situation on the ground remains very dynamic. Sheriff Bill Brown echoed that sentiment, expressing concern that people might be allowed back in their homes only to be forced by the fire to evacuate again.

Assistant City Fire Chief Frank Mannix said a mandatory evacuation order was just that, and was not to be construed in any way as "semi-permeable." Mannix warned prospective "looky loos" that it was a misdemeanor to enter an evacuated zone. Those who did so risked being "challenged, stopped, and arrested, if need be," he said.

Thus far, no such arrests have been made. Eighty-five law enforcement officers from South Coast agencies have been deployed in the evacuation effort, and another 50 from Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties have helped out as part of a mutual aid arrangement.

About 80 percent of Thursday's aerial assault against the Jesusita Fire occurred along the eastern flank, to keep it from spreading past Gibraltar Road. A large bulk of the hand crews were deployed along that border as well. But the vast majority of the engine crews were deployed in the heavily populated neighborhoods to the fire's southern area, where Thursday evening may bring another night of house-to-house combat between firefighters and the fire.

Despite this deployment of resources, Chief Franklin insisted that the incident command was also concerned that the fire could jump Camino Cielo. Should that happen, he warned, the fire could spread out. Then, if the winds should shift pushing the fire back down the mountain sides, there could be hell to pay.

"It could split into two fires," he warned, and threaten much of the South Coast. In the meantime, Franklin seemed happy to accept Thursday's unexpectedly "calm" weather conditions, knowing that Saturday's predictions of milder breezes and cooler temperatures could be just as wrong. "It's mother nature," he said. "You never know what will happen."

Of course, when it comes to wildfires, the more things stay the same, the more they change. As of about 8 p.m., the Jesusita Fire seems to be exploding once again, this time on the western flank, moving toward Goleta and threatening homes near the Northridge Road area. Just now, at 8 p.m., the mandatory evacuation order was extended west, to all residents north of Foothiil Road and east of Highway 154. That includes such roads as Cieneguitas, Northridge, and Cocopah.

event calendar sponsored by: