More Blackouts Likely

Supes Declare Emergency; State Declares Gap Fire Number One Priority

Michael Harris with Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Services discusses the Gap fire with County board of Supervisors (July, 2008).
Paul Wellman

At an emergency meeting convened to discuss the expanding Gap Fire now threatening Goleta, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors was told by County Fire Chief Tom Franklin that the state regards the South Coast blaze to be the number one fire priority in the California. “That could be a tenuous thing if another fire breaks out,” said Chief Franklin, “but right now we are the priority and that’s very good news.” Franklin said that status should help the county obtain additional resources to combat the fire that’s grown from 230 acres Wednesday, July 2 to 2,000 acres by Thursday noon. He explained that California fire officials have placed a priority on keeping new fires from growing too large. The strategy, he explained, is “Keep ’em small.” No doubt, it hasn’t hurt that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has a home in the foothills of Carpinteria.

While this announcement came as welcome news to the supervisors, Franklin underscored the obvious-that state fire fighting resources are spread dangerously thin throughout the state. Two weeks ago, he noted, there were 1,000 fires blazing throughout the state. Today that number has dropped to 300 active infernos. In the process, many of the 20,000 firefighters who’ve been dispatched to flight these various blazes have worked long, dangerous shifts and are decidedly exhausted.

The supervisors-who normally meet on Tuesday-convened Thursday’s meeting to affirm the countywide state of emergency declared last night by acting CEO Jason Stilwell in response to both the fire and the electrical power outages that left anywhere from 75,000 to 180,000 residents temporarily without electricity. (CEO Mike Brown was out of town on business and vacation, but is returning today.) The emergency declaration is a legal formality required for the county to obtain expedited aid from state emergency officials.

Chief Franklin warned the supervisors that more blackouts should be considered extremely likely. He explained that a portion of the fire was blazing under Southern California Edison’s lines near Glen Annie. The thick black smoke generated by the 50-year-old brush-some standing 20 feet high-plays havoc on power generators and transformers, Franklin explained. He added that there’s still a lot of brush unburned beneath the power lines. “We’re not out of the woods,” he cautioned. “there are still significant areas under the lines that have not burned that still could. Aircraft does like to drop on lines for obvious reasons. We don’t like to work under power lines for obvious reasons, so it will burn again.” Franklin offered the faint hope that if the fuel were to burn slowly, then perhaps it would not hamper power transmission. “That’s unlikely though,” he concluded. Members of the public should stock up on batteries, candles, and flashlights, the supervisors were told, and minimize their use of washing machines, dryers, and other appliances that demand a heavy load of electricity.

Franklin also informed the supervisors that he expected another couple of days with wind conditions similar to the first three days of the fire: light winds in the morning followed by a slight acceleration of wind speeds at 2 p.m., then again at 4 p.m., and again at 6 p.m. After that, he said there was some indication that Santa Barbara might get a little respite thanks to monsoon-like breezes that would bring considerable moisture-though not rain-to the region. The down side, he cautioned, was that the winds that accompanied this moisture were swirly and unpredictable. And on Monday, he said, there was some expectation of actual rain.

Franklin outlined the fire’s four main fronts and the efforts taking place. He explained that on the northern edge of the blaze, it is critical that firefighters hold the line on Camino Cielo and not let the fire come back up. “It’s a great place for a fuel break,” he said. The road is accessible, engines can be stationed there, and the ridge offers a clear target for the aerial tankers now bombarding the fire with water and retardant. On the west, he said, were the power lines and their vulnerability to future disruption. On the east is Highway 154, and that, he said, remained somewhat murky. Further recon efforts are necessary to determine what the fire has actually done already, he said, explaining that serious visibility problems have made it hard to gauge the fire’s impact. He stressed that firefighters were poised and ready to protect any and all structures. “Everywhere the fire threatens a structure, we have equipment in place.”

As for Goleta, the most densely populated area within the Gap Fire’s reach, Franklin took some solace in the buffer provided by the lemon orchards and avocado groves. As many as 300 structures have been listed as threatened, and for those the chief said, “We do have structure protection in place.”

Franklin stated because the Gap Fire is easily visible throughout much of the south coast-with thick columns of black smoke darkening the sky by day and red hell-mouth red flames illuminating the sky by night, people might be more concerned that they should be. The fire looks closer than it really is, he said, as distances between canyons are compressed and distorted. That being said, he stressed that people living in the threatened areas need to be ready to move. The time to start figuring out one’s evacuation plans is not when the flames are in one’s back yard, he said.

For the most part the supervisors asked questions, many designed to elicit answers that might be helpful to the general public. There was no debate whatsoever on the state of emergency proclamation, which was unanimously endorsed in a matter of seconds. On the subject of public outreach and communication strategy, there was some minor jousting. Supervisor Joni Gray suggested that members of the public who wanted to know where to go–and how to get there–avail themselves of the county’s 2-1-1 call line after being notified by a “reverse 9-1-1” call that they need go or make preparations to do so. Supervisor Wolf wondered whether that might be inconsistent with the county’s current policy of telling the public to get fire update information off the web, Channel 20, or various radio stations. Supervisor Salud Carbajal opined that in emergency situations, redundancy could be a virtue in getting the word out. But he also noted that the 2-1-1 system had been “shorted” during the recent budget process by as much as $75,000 and he wondered out loud whether his colleagues thought it might behoove the county to revisit that cut.


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