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Looking Big, but Acting Smaller

Jesusita Fire Still Burns Santa Barbara's Mountains, but Doesn't Terrorize on Friday Night


Saturday, May 9, 2009

With the full moon rising over the Santa Barbara waterfront on a comfortably cool Friday night, the orange glow and bright flames of the Jesusita Fire could still be seen from Goleta to Montecito, as the fire's splintered segments sparkled near the ridgeline of Camino Cielo. But unlike the previous two evenings, the sparkle did not morph into a hellish firestorm, force tens of thousands of people to evacuate their neighborhoods, require firefighters to battle flames, or destroy dozens of homes. Rather, the Jesusita, for all its prior rage and destruction, took it easy, and everyone is hoping that the fire's attitude adjustment will prove permanent.

That's not to say the fire is out. As of early Saturday morning, May 9, it continues to burn in the mountains above both Montecito and Goleta, and any powerful shift in wind speed or direction could send the blaze back down to town, or over into the Santa Ynez Valley, where there's plenty to burn. Lots of people spent Friday night fire-watching, a fairly pleasant pastime when there aren't lives and houses on the line. But thanks to a noticeable drop in temperature, rise in humidity, the moving in of a solid marine layer, and a stillness of the air that hasn't been felt all week, much of the South Coast was able to sleep a little easier on Friday night.

Of course, there are an estimated 30,000 evacuees from more than 12,000 residences - ranging from the Goleta locals out on Patterson north of 101 to the Montecito people on Hot Springs north of East Valley Road - who caught those zzz's in a bed other than their own, whether at a friend's house, in a hotel, or at one of the many Red Cross-run shelters that have opened in response to the fire. The evacuation warnings still also paint a broad brushstroke across the heart of the South Coast, with nearly another 12,000 residences and 30,000 people forewarned that a shift in wind could send them to a shelter too. No doubt all of these folks - who amount to probably a third, if not more, of the population of the entire metropolitan area - are hoping more than anyone that this beast of a blaze comes to a halt sometime soon.

As for the bare facts, as of the last official count (and this will likely change early Saturday morning, at least by the 9 a.m. press conference), the Jesusita Fire has burned 8,600 acres. It is currently 10 percent contained, though that number means very little until it starts breaching the 50 percent mark. An initial assessment counts about 80 residences damaged or destroyed and, of the evacuated homes, about 3,500 are considered "threatened." Another 100 businesses also have received this threatened status.

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Battling the fire as of Friday night were 3,455 personnel, comprised of 428 engines and 78 crews. Air support included 14 air tankers and 15 helicopters, not to mention the big DC-10 that made a midday appearance on Friday and may make a repeat performance on Saturday. There have been 11 firefighters injured, including three Ventura County vets who were transported to a burn center in Sherman Oaks, but they should end up alright. All told, it's cost $3.2 million to wage the war against the Jesusita, a number that's sure to climb dramatically.

The cause of the fire, which started along the popular Jesusita hiking trail in San Roque Canyon, remains under investigation. Law enforcement agents have been heard in the field discussing a strong possibility of arson, but there is no official word on that yet. Anyone with information is urged to contact the tip line at (805) 686-5074. Everyone in town will thank you.

Yesterday's Highlights

Just to make sure readers didn't miss some of the important reporting filed by The Independent's team yesterday, here are some highlights:

Evacuees Speak

Burned Homes Report

Friday Afternoon Press Conference

Friday Night Painted Cave Report

Ray Ford's Friday Report

All Jesusita Photographs

Cruise Ship Cometh

Just as the Jesusita seems to be calming down, another sort of beast will be attacking Santa Barbara from the shoreline. On Sunday, Princess Cruise Lines' Sapphire Princess pulls into port around 7 a.m. and, so long as the fire's not bearing down on town, its vacationing boaties will be onshore shopping State Street, going on various tours, and pumping some cash into an economy that's been sort of frozen for about a week.

Yes, Captain Anthony Herriott is well aware of the fire situation and is prepared to amend the onshore schedule if the Jesusita's smoke and fire continues to taint our town. They're leaving it up to Herriott as a "game-day decision." Unlike the two other Princess Cruise ships that made surprise stops in Santa Barbara on May 2 and 3 due to scrapping Mexico plans amidst the swine flu scare, the Sapphire Princess has intended to make a port call on the American Riviera for several months. That can only mean that the passengers really want to be here, so let's hope the smoldering and smoke don't scare 'em.

What to Expect Today

Assuming the Jesusita doesn't revert to its monster form, these are the stories you can expect to pop on Independent.com today:

• 9 a.m. press conference update from Chris Meagher

• Morning assessment from Ethan Stewart

• Rundown on yesterday and predictions for today by Ray Ford

• Addition of addresses to our property roll call by Sam Kornell and others

• Afternoon and evening updates, if necessary

Stay tuned, and stay safe.

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