Zaca Fire Soot Casts Haze Over Weekend

Ash Saturday

Pushed by heavy winds, ash from this summer's Zaca Fire poured into the South Coast on Saturday, leaving Santa Barbara's air unhealthy to breathe and everything else covered with a layer of soot.
Paul Wellman

Despite a blustery, windy weekend that filled the South Coast with ash and smoke, and a 750-acre fire in North County, Santa Barbara County emerged relatively unscathed from a weekend that saw Southern California go up in flames. More than 17 fires, from the Sedgwick Fire (seven miles northeast of Los Olivos) to the Mexican border, consumed hundreds of thousands of acres. Six deaths have been reported and a federal state of emergency declared by President George W. Bush.

Roughly 500 firefighters fought to stop the Sedgwick Fire, which was declared 100 percent contained on Monday evening. No structures were damaged. An evacuation warning that was in effect for the nearby Woodstock community had been lifted as of 6 p.m. Monday.

Many of those who fought the fire in Santa Barbara County are now helping with other fires in Southern California. The Santa Barbara County Fire Department sent a team of 25 firefighters to Ventura County’s Ranch Fire Monday night. The Santa Barbara City Fire Department has sent three engine companies-about 25 firefighters and staff-to several of the Southern California fires, including the Ranch Fire, the Witch Fire in San Diego County and the Santiago Fire in Orange County. Despite the deployments, both local agencies are still running at full strength.

Perhaps having an even larger impact on South Coast residents were the ash and soot dumped on the coast Saturday. Residents woke up to a haze descending on the city. Wind gusts reaching 75 miles per hour, a precursor to the Santa Ana winds that followed, pushed ash from the county’s backcountry-a result of this summer’s Zaca Fire-into the South Coast, making a walk downtown uncomfortable for residents. Club and bar bouncers wore sunglasses to shield their eyes from the blowing ash, while pedestrians attempted to shield their noses, eyes, and mouths from the soot.

The ash was significantly cleared out by Sunday, and even more so on Monday, said Tom Murphy, a division manager at the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District, but then the smoke from the fires down south began to further impact the air quality along the South Coast. The settled ash is also continuously stirred up every morning when vehicles begin driving around the city, resulting in additional dust throughout the South Coast.

As a result, the county’s Public Health Department on Tuesday upgraded the health advisory it had been distributing daily since Saturday, explaining that conditions had worsened and warning people to stay inside. Despite this, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital hadn’t seen an influx in patient admissions related to ash, soot, and smoke, a spokesperson said. Barbara Keyani, a spokesperson for the Santa Barbara School Districts, said district officials asked school principals to use their best judgment in allowing outdoor activities to continue. Tuesday, a water polo match at San Marcos High and a tennis match between Santa Barbara and Dos Pueblos high schools were both cancelled because of the poor air quality.

While the magnitude of Saturday’s soot and ash fallout will be tough to match, a potential exists for another such occurrence unless a decent amount of rain falls on the parched remains of the Zaca Fire and until vegetation begins to grow. The APCD’s Murphy said Saturday’s storm was a “really exceptional event,” at least 10 times worse than anything he has ever seen. “The air was as bad as it gets from a particulate standpoint,” he said. “I’ve never seen a particulate concentration as high as Saturday’s.”

Los Padres National Forest was closed Tuesday as a result of the fire activity throughout Southern California. The closure, according to a statement from Los Padres National Forest Supervisor Peggy Hernandez, was “necessary in order to protect public health and safety,” and would continue until prime fire conditions subsided.


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