Heading up Highway 154 this morning, the thick fog held a promise that conditions might be more favorable on the fire line today. Sadly, I was mistaken. As I crested the pass, I could see Figueroa Mountain shining brightly in the distance.
It is 7 a.m. and the illusion has evaporated. It will be hot up there again today.
As I work my way up the twisting road to Figueroa Mountain, I am ambivalent about what lies ahead. On the other side of the mountain is wilderness, a land that I love as much as any place I’ve spent much time. Like a fine wine, it seems to get better with age.
A first glimpse over the ridgeline fills me with dread. A thick billowing thunderhead greets me, perhaps a thousand feet in height, the smoke rising swiftly upward as massive amounts of chaparral are consumed.
The Deck is burning. I am almost at a loss for words. I’ve walked the Deck just this past Christmas with a few friends – something I’ve found rewarding to do the day after as a way of celebrating both the beauty and spirit of this country – but also we are checking things out for a trail project for later in the year.
There are a few of us dedicated to taking care of the backcountry trails and we’ve set our sights on opening up the thick brush up on the Deck so others can share what is so dear to us. I can report (somewhat happily) that we hadn’t done any of the work yet.
One small consolation: I can also report after looking down on the raging fire, though we may not have cleared it, the Deck Trail will be wide open for use whenever public access to the area is reestablished.
Turning to the west, I can see that there is major activity along the Zaca Ridge. When the fire crossed the Manzana, suppression plans were blown sky high. No longer is it possible to hold the Sisquoc – at least east of the Schoolhouse where there are no roads. Contingency plans now call for stopping its advance on the Sierra Madre crest.
There is also the possibility the fire may turn back west once it crosses the Sisquoc and work its way back towards Horse Canyon, thus subverting any attempts to hold the Sisquoc below the Schoolhouse.
Though it is far from Santa Barbara – 30 air miles, many ridgelines and the Santa Ynez River – no one can predict how the fire will behave once it runs through the rest of the Hurricane Deck. If past history is an example, during the Wellman Fire, the fire jumped over the Deck and followed the Manzana up the flanks of McKinley Peak near what is known as Hell’s Half Mile.
Though the name may come from the barren look of this stretch of the ridge, the title may more appropriately apply to the hellish efforts firefighters made to keep the fire from blowing over ridge here during the Wellman Fire.
Currently, dozers are at work reinforcing the McKinley ridge should another stand need be made. This has been a tough day for the fire crews. They have worked hard to keep the fire within reasonable size. It is not that they have failed to do so; just that the topography, fuel loading, lack of moisture and rugged terrain have combined to make this an almost impossible job.
Today, the crews have fought valiantly to hold the Zaca Ridge and done so marvelously. Tonight the Santa Ynez Valley is still safe as a result.