At this morning’s briefing, operations leaders pointed to the large map behind them to emphasize how close the Live Oak team was to finishing the final line around the fire in the Pendola area.
“I think we’re going to have good news for those down in Santa Barbara,” Incident Co-Commander Chris Childers added. “We should have the final piece of hand line in place today.”
If the Hot Shots get the work done today and close off the last two small sections of uncontained line, fire commanders may be able to declare 100 percent containment in the Live Oak Zone tomorrow or the following day.
“We’re at 92% containment right now,” the other Incident Co-Commander Rocky Opliger told agency representatives at a meeting later in the morning. “We’re feeling pretty comfortable right now.”
Today’s good news prompted the fire team to recommend that Paradise Road be re-opened to the public. If this occurs, visitors will be able to drive in as far as the first river crossing at Lower Oso. That announcement may come later today. But for those who want to head out, the Forest Service wants to remind the public that the forest is still largely closed.
Hard Days for the Hot Shots
Just a few days ago, after the fire had exploded up Agua Caliente and Diablo Canyons, slopped over the Monte Arido ridge into Ventura County and threatened to move south towards Santa Barbara, it appeared the only solution left was to backfire from Pendola Jeepway towards the advancing flames.
On Saturday the backfires were ignited and the massive clouds of smoke and ash began to build, causing a great deal of worrying for South Coast residents. From the crest, the display was impressive. By late afternoon it was clear the first phase of the burn program was a success.
The question then became: Will the second phase go as well? Not only was this a more difficult piece to burn due to the “dogleg” section of the Jeepway, but the fire would get pretty close to the Santa Ynez River. There would be little room for error.
Later on Saturday, as the final details for this second phase of the backfiring were being worked out, commanders were getting feedback from the field that the Hot Shot crews down on the line might be able to go direct and connect the containment line in Mono Creek to Pendola Jeepway.
At about the same time, Incident Commander Childers and Night Operations Leader Mark Chambers were on a reconnaissance flight over the area. As they followed the jeepway down towards the lower line of the backfiring operations, the helicopter pilot mentioned that it was too bad they couldn’t cut the fire off right at the top part of the dogleg.
“The ops leader and I looked at each other and thought, why not?” Childers remembered. Chambers added, “We could see the fire had really stalled out in Diablo Canyon. It really didn’t want to burn anywhere, but where we were doing the backfiring.”
What you had was one of those moments where consensus was building to move the strategy away from firing the lower section out completely and back to going direct. The Hot Shots were saying they could do it – and up in the air the leaders were agreeing.
On Sunday, when shifting winds made it impossible to fire out the dogleg section of Pendola Jeepway, the decision was made to go direct from both sides – down into Agua Caliente Canyon from Hildreth Jeepway on the west and down off Pendola Jeepway on the east across the lower end of Diablo Canyon and into Agua Caliente.
Dozer lines were cut from both ends to provide a safety zones to protect the crews. With those in place, the Los Padres, Eldorado, and Texas Canyon Hot Shots went to work.
The work was extremely intense: the drop off the west ridge was almost a thousand feet to the bottom of Agua Caliente – and from the Pendola Jeepway nearly 1,200 feet – both major elevation drops on which to build 10-foot-wide hand lines in thick brush.
Even though the DC-10 was dropping down thousands of gallons of additional retardant along the jeepway in case the whole area needed to be fired out, by Sunday evening the Shots had made enough progress that it was clear the direct attack was working well.
By the day’s end Monday, all but two very small sections of fire line were left: one finger in Agua Caliente Canyon and one part of the ridgetop to the east.
Though there won’t be an announcement for a day or so that containment is complete on the Santa Barbara side of the fire, for the first time in several weeks, it appears the county’s longest and largest fire will no longer threaten the South Coast.
Though the fire may be winding down for the Santa Barbara area, the Zaca Fire is far from over. There is still a large amount of backfire operations needed on the Highway 33 side of the fire. And along the Sisquoc, there is more than 5 miles of uncontained fire line that will be extremely difficult to contain. Over the next few days, I’ll concentrate on what’s happening on the other side of the fire.
Today the fire officially became the second largest fire in modern California history when it reached 220,683 acres (345 square miles, or 12.6 percent of the county). Within one week – give a day or two – it will become the state’s largest when it surpasses the 273,000 acre Cedar Fire. It still has not burned a structure (only one small shed) nor caused any significant injuries.