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Ray Ford

Jesusita Fire Turns Tragic Without Warning

Dramatic Wind Shift Turns Mission Canyon Into a Disaster; Thursday Critical Day on Fire Line


Thursday, May 7, 2009

Thursday is turning out to be a crucial day on the fire line. Flames are now established in the upper ends of three canyons: San Roque, Mission, and Rattlesnake. The potential is for the fire to reach the top of the mountains in any of these locations if the wind pushes it uphill. Should the fire cross the crest in any of these locations, as it did in the 1964 Coyote Fire, this could expand its potential impact dramatically.

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Ray Ford

Severe downhill winds later in the day could also push the fire back down into any of a number of the nearby foothill communities.

Firefighters will be holding their breaths as the 2PM hour approaches, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

Wednesday morning started off quietly enough. I headed up to the top of the San Roque staging area where hot shot crews were preparing cut a hand line around the western edge of the fire line. The winds were negligible and it was hot, but that didn't seem to bother the Cachuma Lake hotshots whom I was embedded with that morning.

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Ray Ford

Cutting line is a torturous job: the chain saws buzzed like a swarm of angry bees as they worked their way up step canyons and hillsides only a billy goat could climb. The ground was littered with debris, much of it still burning and all of it ash covered and smoking. However, the crew moved quickly up the hillside, protected by helicopters that were dropping 300 gallon loads of water on the few flare-ups that were popping up.

By noon the crew had made it up to Jesusita Trail near the fire's origin. County Fire inspectors had cordoned off a section of the trail where they believe it had begun and were waiting for things to cool down a bit before starting their investigation. I headed back to the staging area thinking that all was well on this end of the fire.

Knoll at top of Inspiration Point area is completely burned out.
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Ray Ford

Knoll at top of Inspiration Point area is completely burned out.

On the Inspiration Point: Shortly after noon I headed east up towards Inspiration Point to join another hot shot crew - the Los Prietos crew - whose assignment was to start cutting line down the ridge just beyond Inspiration Point to upper Tunnel Road. As I made my way to the top of the knoll I passed a lookout who works for Montecito Fire. He cautioned me that things would be heating up later but right now there was barely a breeze. Above me a dozer crew was cutting a new ridgeline fire break and I could see spotters on a handful of high points that were monitoring conditions.

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Ray Ford

When I reached Inspiration Point Iwas blown away: the brush for a hundred yards in every direction was burned away and most of the hilltop was nothng but mineral soil and the charred sticks of chaparral brush. Not too far from the Point I spotted the trail leading to what was the original site of Inspiration Point, a cluster of gracefully sculptured boulders that overlook the city. Nearby I could see the rock outlines of an old stone structure, something I'd never before noticed.

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Ray Ford

As the LP hotshots moved down the ridgeline I meandered further east to a point where I could look down into the west fork of Mission Creek. I could see the narrows that form the fabled Seven Falls. A dozen or so small wisps of smoke told me that the fire was still alive on the ridge immediately above the falls. It is about 1:30PM and it appeared we were well on the way to seeing the end of this particular fire.

A few moments later I headed over to a spot where I could photograph the huge four engine planes that were covering the chaparral with the thick, gooey retardant that fire fighters were hoping would slow down the flames should the winds pick up. About 2PM the wind, as the weather forecasters had predicted, began to pick up. However, the breeze had shifted to an uphill mode, which seemed like a good omen for Mission Canyon residents, but not to the hot shots down on the lower ridge. Quickly they scampered back up the hill as the brush they were cutting began to catch fire.

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Near Seven Falls, the shift in wind was causing the small smokes to heat up as well, and in minutes there were 40-to-50 foot flames pushing uphill on the ridge leading to Cathedral Peak. It appeared that the fire was heading towards the mountain crest. Just then one of the hot shots reached my position and I heard him utter an expletive. "We're losing the Mission Canyon drainage," he shouted. Just then a spot fire appeared cross canyon near the Tunnel Trail. I heard another expletive. I realized that this time it had come from me. The fire was heading toward the Rattlesnake Canyon drainage.

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Ray Ford

On of the smaller helicopters popped up and doused the spot fire but it wasn't long before another burst of flame appeared. Earlier this morning the fire crews had begged for the helicopters known as "heavies" - the Erickson Sky Cranes that can carry a 2,000 pound load of water. But apparently Fire Central, located in some distant location, didn't feel the homes down below were sufficiently threatened to give us the artillery needed on the front lines here.

Though four more helicopters quickly began swarmming around the Cathedral ridgeline in a valiant attempt to douse the flames, but it didn't appear that their 300-pound payloads were going to be sufficient to do the job. By now it was almost 2:30PM and the action was getting hot and heavy.

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Ray Ford

The Winds Shift: Then without warning, the wind shifted, catching everyone by surprise. The shift was sudden and intense. Within a minute it switched from a 10-to-15MPH steady uphill breeze to 50MPH storm force winds heading directly down canyon. The wind held steady in excess of 40MPH with gusts to 60MPH for minutes at a time, then it would calm to a more reasonable 20MPH, before pushing back up to the +50MPH range.

I joined the other hot shot crews near Inspiration Point as we all prepared to head back down into San Roque Canyon. However, we found we were cut off from going down the road by huge walls of flames fuled by the chaparral that hadn't burned the previous night.

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Ray Ford

We were safe up where we stood, surrounded by several hundred yards of burned out brush but we were stuck nevertheless. We hunkered down to wait out the wall of fire below. Gust after gust hit us and in minutes the field radios carried by the firefighters began reporting houses burning.

Then came the sounds of huge blasts. One of the hot shots explained that propane tanks were blowing up. For these firefighters it was a tough two hours, unable to reach the ground below. Heartbreaking.

Later that evening we were able to make our way down to the staging area in San Roque Canyon. By 7PM the winds calmed down again, just as they had the night before, and the sense of panic lessened. However, this calmness was tempered by the many columns of black smoke dotting the horizon, all signaling that homes were on fire.

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Ray Ford

I worked my way over to Spyglass Ridge to see how the house of Glenn Griffith had fared. I had sat with him the night before on his stone wall watching the fire creep over the top of Inspiration Point. His house had survived, though an outbuilding was totally gone. Above, the hillsides were bare. A 15-foot-tall ceanothus covering has been totally burned away.

The owners of homes on the next ridge east of Spyglass were not as fortunate. One firefighter told me, "It came at us so hard and so quick, there was little chance to do much to save these homes."

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Ray Ford

Topographical Influences: Meanwhile, with the winds calming down, topographic influences began to reestablish themselves. Without the downhill winds, the spot fires began to work their way uphill. In San Roque and Mission Canyon flames followed the ridges on either side of Cathedral Peak. Across Seven Falls the fire expanded over Tunnel Trail and dropped down into upper Rattlesnake Canyon.

Along the San Roque edge of the fire line, crews took advantage of the calmer conditions and easterly flow to fire out along the canyon and open up a wide expanse of black area in order to protect residents across canyon in the event that the winds should shift to the west.

Now, on Thursday, all the crews are preparing in case the same conditions should hit Santa Barbara again.

UPDATE, 1:30 p.m.: Shortly after the posting of this article, Ray Ford called in with an additional report. He's in San Roque Canyon at the Arroyo Burro Ridge Line. He reports that the fire has firmly established itself in down in the canyon, about a quarter mile above the Moreno Ranch. It has gone up to the west in the upper end of the western fork of San Roque Canyon. Helicopters are going back and forth. Should a downhill wind start blowing, there's a possibility that the fire would be pushed over Arroyo Burro and west into the next canyon - possibly either San Antonio Creek Canyon or Barger Canyon. The breeze was blowing around 5-10 miles per hour but was beginning to pick up, as expected.

The other major fire activity Ford reported was that the fire was beginning to take off to the east, near Cathedral Peak. "There's a good fire going uphill [toward] the Mission Creek Drainage," he explained. Ford didn't think the fire has yet gone up Mission Creek towards the top, but he could see what he termed "good-sized flames" there. "It's about the time now when everything starts getting active," Ford said. "Toward Rattlesnake Canyon, things are staying pretty calm. The big concern now is over in SanRoque, but that doesn't mean it won't change later."

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