As you read this, the Zaca Fire will be raging on. Burning a massive swath of land through the Santa Barbara backcountry, the month-old blaze has scorched more than 73,000 acres as of press time. Though considered to be on the brink of containment fewer than two weeks ago, the fire has since found new life, with the uncontrolled portions of its perimeter stretching for more than 25 miles throughout the wilderness. On its eastern front, the flames dive ever deeper into the Dick Smith Wilderness, while its southern-most edge threatens to consume Paradise Road, the Santa Ynez River, and, should existing fire lines not hold, the Camino Cielo Ridge and the nearby electricity grid that powers most of the South Coast.
On Tuesday, even as fire officials continued to stress that the Santa Barbara and Montecito areas were in no immediate danger, evacuation plans were being prepared, warning systems developed, and a 200-member Cal Fire Incident Command unit had taken up residence at Earl Warren Showgrounds to “pre-plan” for the chaos should the inferno make it over East Camino Cielo.
Addressing a 500-person crowd at an emergency town hall meeting in Montecito on Monday night, U.S. Forest Service Operations Section Chief Dan Kleinman summed up the situation by saying that in all his years of fighting fires, “This is some of the worst fuel conditions and the worst fire behavior I have ever seen.” As of late Tuesday evening, just as winds began blowing from the north and began pushing the fire more aggressively toward the south and sending ash toward downtown Santa Barbara, the blaze was fewer than five miles from the banks of the Santa Ynez River, a location one official identified earlier in the day as the “most important and really last line of defense.”
On July 24, speaking with guarded optimism, S.B. County and U.S. Forest Service spokespersons publicly forecast the Zaca Fire to be contained by August 3. The fire was no more than 70 percent contained, but authorities had faith in their heavily fortified fire lines along the ridge running between San Rafael and McKinley mountains. At the time, that ridge marked one of the fire’s last remaining hot spots. Looking to cut costs and ensure firefighter safety, strategists made the somewhat unorthodox call to wait for the flames to come up the ridge from the steep and thick terrain below before stomping them out as they presumably starved on the pre-burned ridge top. Unfortunately, once the wind picked up out of the north, the hope for quick containment went up in smoke. As Kleinman put it this week, “It was looking real docile, even on the morning of July 28, but it got into some scrub oak, had a run, had some wind, and by the afternoon, it was hell all over again.”
But the flare-up came as no surprise to some in the firefighting ranks who felt the rope-a-dope approach-though largely dictated by very real financial restrictions-was a wrong and highly risky call from the beginning, especially considering the fire’s proximity to several communities. As one unnamed Forest Service official explained it, “In past years, they would have thrown money and personnel at that thing, gone down after it, and pounded the shit out of it. But, for whatever reason, they didn’t, and now we are all dealing with the results.”
While hindsight is always 20/20, the reality is, as S.B. County Fire Department spokesman Eli Iskow said in the wake of the Montecito meeting, “The weather and the wind always have the final say in a fire.” And in the days since its rebirth, the Zaca Fire has more than doubled in size, thanks to a drought-dried landscape-much of which hasn’t seen a burn in 100 years-and on-again, off-again fire-friendly weather patterns. Its burn scar now totals more than 110 square miles.
Approximately 650 Paradise Road residents were evacuated during the ash-covered Fiesta weekend, as were the Rancho Oso Guest Ranch & Stables and Los Prietos Boys Camp. The mini city of fire-fighting personnel erected at Live Oak camp several weeks ago has swelled to more than 2,000 people-complete with mess halls, chainsaw repair stores, hundreds of tents, fuel stations, car washes, and supply distribution that would give any military operation a run for its money. Crews of men and women from all over the country now call the popular Santa Ynez Valley campground home-and there is no immediate end in sight.
A second, similar Incident Command Post was opened this week at Camp Richardson in the New Cuyama area to better serve the folks fighting the northern and eastern edges of the fire advancing toward Ventura County. The aforementioned camp at Earl Warren Showgrounds was opened on Tuesday with 50 fire engines and 200 personnel from throughout the state. The mothership of firefighting aircraft, the DC-10, was brought in as well this week, though it had only taken practice runs as of press time. When asked by Santa Barbara City Councilmembers this week if the Zaca Fire was the largest in California history, Santa Barbara Fire Chief Ron Prince, “If it’s not, it will be soon; and, it is also certainly the longest.”
The estimated cost of the extensive ongoing operations, to date, tops out at $55 million with that number expected to soar in coming days as decidedly unfriendly firefighting weather conditions are forecast to prevail until at least Friday, August 10. With the deafening hum of helicopters unloading teams of Hot Shots from the frontlines of the fire echoing behind him, Fire Captain Baraka Carter alluded to this outlook late Tuesday afternoon: “We knew today was going to be the last day for a while that we make any real forward progress in fighting this thing. : Now, it’s up to the weather and hoping that our hand crews could tie off some of our lines today.”