Yesterday afternoon, to the relief of many down in Santa Barbara who feared the fire had escaped containment lines, fire fighters pulled off one of the finest back fire operations ever performed.
With the fire pressing up Agua Caliente and Diablo Canyons, and a small slopover into the Matilija Wilderness causing a momentary fear they’d lost Monte Arido Ridge and continued movement of the fire in the Mono Creek area, command decided it was time to implement “Plan A” – and burn out ahead of the advancing flames.
The back firing began just after noon. Not too long after that the fast-rising plumes of brown smoke topped with what looked like mounds of pure white began to appear over the Santa Ynez Mountain crest behind Montecito.
From town it was difficult to believe reports the fire was miles beyond the crest, yet from the top of Cold Springs Canyon it was clear the back firing operation was at least three air miles northeast of the city and clearly not a danger to Santa Barbara.
Back Firing Continues Today
At the morning briefing at Live Oak Camp, operations leaders confirmed that they would continue the back firing and hope to bring the fire down the lower four miles of Pendola Jeepway to the mouth of Agua Caliente Canyon.
“We’ve still got a lot of hard work down there,” Forest Service Liaison Brad Joost told those assembled at the briefing. “When we bring the fire down to Pendola Station, this will be the closest point we’ll be to Santa Barbara.
“The difference, however, is that we are now in control of the fire,” Joost added.
Today will be pivotal. At the closest point to the coast, the fire will be on the edge of the Santa Ynez River and almost directly north of Toro Canyon. “They’ll be taking this part really slowly,” Montecito Fire District Chief Kevin Wallace explained. “They may take two days to complete this section.”
What could make the operation difficult is that the jeepway takes a “dogleg” to the left a little over halfway down to Pendola Station.
“On the upper half the winds were heading due north, and really helped keep the fire contained on the back side of the ridge,” Wallace continued, “but when the road makes that turn the winds get trickier and they’ll have to be a lot more careful to keep it where they want it.”
Transitioning in to take command of the fire for California Interagency Team #4 is Rocky Opliger. He cautioned fire fighters, “This country is going to give you what it’s going to give you and we’ve got to take the rest. We’ll get it a piece at a time today; we’ll need a lot of patience but we’ll get it done.”
If not today, tomorrow may bring the welcome news that South Coast residents are finally safe.
Fire Expands on the Sisquoc
Almost unnoticed because of the intense activity in the Pendola area, the fire has escaped through the containment line down Sweetwater Trail.
Several days ago, the Richardson Zone leaders had requested, and received, permission to build 2.1 miles of dozer line into the San Rafael Wilderness to anchor the top of a seven mile long ridge line down to the Sisquoc River and then uphill to the White Ledge area in an attempt to check the fire.
A week and a half ago the fire had moved over the top of Mission Pine Basin and entrenched itself in the upper Sisquoc near Big Pine Creek. Steadily, the fire has moved north towards the Sierra Madres and west down the river, eating its way up into each of the side drainages on its way down the canyon.
With the fire rapidly approaching the South Fork, heading up Judell, Logan, Cliff, and Sweetwater canyons and threatening to open a major new front, command moved to hold this off by backfiring off the Sierra Madres and along the Sweetwater ridge. While the burnout on the crest was successful, before the Sweetwater line could be completed, the fire moved past it despite heavy use of air atttack to slow its progress down so hand crews could contain the spread.
Currently the fire in the Sisquoc drainage has moved up onto the Hurricane Deck near White Ledge, advanced more than a half mile downstream from South Fork and completely burned over the lower four miles of the Sweetwater ridge. With no good points to anchor another containment line downstream, it appears the fire will burn out as much of the river canyon and north slope of the Deck as it wants.
As a side note, archaeologist Mike Kaberline tells me the the South Fork Station is safe. This photo dates to a volunteer work project several years ago to help repair the Station and the nearby trails.