As of Tuesday evening, after tens of thousands of acres in the Santa Barbara backcountry had burned, firefighting forces appeared to have the Zaca Fire under control with more than 60 percent of the inferno contained and August 3 earmarked as the likely full containment date. The mini-city erected in recent weeks at the Live Oak campground to provide home base and command central to the approximately 800 personnel fighting the blaze was being slowly taken down even as plumes of smoke continued to rise above the distant ridgeline. Despite the slow and steady withdrawal of firefighters and support staff, a clearly relieved Eli Iskow, Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesperson, noting the still-swirling winds and hot temperatures baking the area, cautioned “We’re doing good, but this is not over yet. All it takes is one little spark to jump over the ridge and we’re in trouble all over again.”
Sparked to life accidentally by a grinder being used to repair a water line on private property just off Bell Canyon Road in the mid-morning hours of July 4, the fire has since scorched more than 31,000 acres in its march east into the Los Padres National Forest and the San Rafael Wilderness. Charring a massive swath of land through oak and sycamore trees, tinder-dry chaparral, and a desperately thirsty creekbed, the Zaca Fire has been fought day in and day out with dozers, air tankers, helicopters, and Hot Shot hand crews digging firebreaks along the flaming edge of the ever-growing beast.
Thanks to the hard work, some recently moist and foggy conditions, and a good deal of luck, the fire-as of press time-had only one danger spot remaining. Helicoptered into the area, crews waited along the ridgeline betwixt San Rafael Mountain and McKinley Mountain Tuesday afternoon. With the easternmost edge of the fire still burning strong roughly four miles due east of the Cachuma Saddle, firefighting officials, eyeing the steep and hostile terrain below, had decided to cut a fire line and wait for the slowly advancing flames to come to them atop the ridge. Looking to cut costs-the operation, which features firefighting crews from across the country, has already run up a $31.9 million bill-and to keep their Hot Shots out of harm’s way, officials made the somewhat unorthodox call to use the firefighting equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy: As Zaca Fire information officer John Olford explained it this week, “At this point, it’s all about patience. We know the fire is coming; it is just a matter of when.” When that occurs, according to Olford, the Zaca Fire should be in its final stages-though the cleanup and closures to the nearby areas of the Los Padres will most likely remain in place for several months to come.
Its In the Air
The land isn’t all that suffers in a fire this size, according to Tom Murphy of the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District.
When it was at 250,000 acres, the Zaca Fire was burning 20 tons of chaparral per acre half a million tons of fuel in the blaze’s first two weeks. The fire belched three main types of pollutants into the sky: ROG (reactive organic gases), NOX (nitrogen oxide), and particulate matter.
By July 18, the amount of NOX produced by the fire was the equivalent of one-third of that produced by all motor vehicles in the South Coast in a typical year. The amount of ROG equaled approximately what those vehicles produce in a year. And the amount of particulate matter equaled about 4,000 times what motor vehicles produce.
The fire burned a land area equal to approximately 1.8 percent of the total land mass in Santa Barbara County.
Thirty Years Ago
Thursday, July 26, marks the 30th anniversary of the start of the Sycamore Canyon Fire, which scared Santa Barbara out of its wits. Although the fire was small by most comparisons, it consumed 234 homes during a two-day rampage. Other big infernos that rudely reminded Santa Barbara that fire is part of our natural landscape are:
The Painted Cave Fire
June 27 to July 2, 1990
Coyote Canyon Fire
Sept. 22 to Oct. 1, 1964
Sept. 6-15, 1955