Is it possible to imagine how much a community could be turned upside-down in just 48 hours? Just two days ago I was in Big Sur focusing on a community at risk from a different fire, the Basin Fire, when a friend called and said in the way only he can, “Hey, bro :. I can see flames half way up the mountains from my house.” Like there was something I could do about it. Quickly I called a member of Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue to check the story, which he confirmed. Within minutes I was on my way back to Santa Barbara.
Last year’s Zaca Fire was a long one by most fire fighting standards. It started on July 4, 2007, almost a year to the day when the Gap Fire began. But it began so far off the beaten path and was a hidden in the back country for weeks; only towards the end, when the 30,000-foot-tall mushroom clouds popped up over the mountains behind us did most people take notice.
The Gap Fire, by contrast, has been up close and personal from the very start.
Tonight there are evacuations and hundreds of people wondering if they will have a home to go to tomorrow. Just hours from 4th of July festivities, we now are seeing a horrible fireworks spectacle many Santa Barbarans will remember for the rest of their lives.
Yesterday morning, when I went up to West Camino Cielo to join a crew building a secure fire line, there was barely a breeze and the fire perimeter was not much more than a half-mile wide. The smoke drifted skyward at a lazy pace and perhaps many down in the valley were lulled into thinking there really wasn’t much to the fire after all. From the air, helicopters and tankers began to arrive, with the goal of closing off both sides of the fire and forcing it into a straight downhill run. Though this might seem counterintuitive to those who lived immediately below the fire’s path, actually it made perfect sense because there is a mile or so of ranchland buffer between the mountains and homes.
The strategy was sound but the Gap Fire chose not to cooperate. Instead, not too long after the politicians met reporters at a 2 p.m. press conference, the wind began to accelerate – not the uphill breeze that we usually get in the late afternoon, but a steady downhill wind that reached up to 30mph on the crest and wrecked havoc below.
Rather than forcing the fire downhill into the ranch lands where it could be dealt with by the forces that were massing along Cathedral Oaks, the flames followed lateral channels east and west along saddles formed by erosion of softer rock materials, turning what was a half mile wide fire into one with a three-to-four mile wide. By 8 p.m., in the Ellwood area, rancher Ken Doty, his son, and son-in-law were busy spending the night building dozer lines to protect his property from the advancing flames. On the other end, at the top of the Fairview area, neighbors were out in the street, dumbstruck by the huge flames they could see on the hills immediately above them. The questions were mounting.
Just hours before at the press conference the talk was of Reverse 911, taking preventative measures, being vigilant, making a family emergency plan while immediately behind those at the podium I could see flames pouring over the top of the landmark known as the Widow’s Tear, a 200-foot waterfall that spills only after a substantial storm.
Little did we know that we would only have a few hours before power outages would cause havoc and just another 24 hours before mandatory evacuations would begin in earnest, as the fire exploded up the mountainside above Fairview Avenue and pushed west into San Jose Creek.
Up on Old San Marcos Pass the wind is fierce. It is blowing every which way and it is hard to stand up let alone deal with the task of putting valuables into the car and getting out. That is if you were able to get past the roadblocks before the hard closure began. The Sheriff’s officer who is directing traffic and denying access to those who’ve been caught out in town is being forced into the unenviable task of telling them they can walk back in but not by car. Listening to those who desperately want to get back in is heartbreaking. It is hard for them to get a handle on this new reality that the fire has forced on them. With no other choice, they park out along Cathedral Oaks and begin the trek up to their homes to gather possessions.
As I make my way up Old San Marcos I provide a ride for a few of them up to Twin Ridge Estates then head higher to survey the fire’s progress.
While most of the fire activity is still on the Goleta side of San Jose Creek and thus a half-mile short of my position, the fire is spewing coals at a furious rate and the interior of the canyon is lighting up like a Christmas tree.
By 8 p.m. the advancing flames are headed directly for homes at the top of West Camino Cielo. Further west I can see that another large firestorm has almost reached the crest. Just over it is the Kinevan Ranch area as well as the canyon that leads directly down to Cold Springs Tavern. It appears it won’t be long before these areas are overrun as well as those in the upper part of San Jose Creek at the Trout Club when the winds begin to shift. Within a few minutes a full sundowner is in effect and the smoke shifts to a downhill flow. I pass a young man on a motorcycle who lives in the area and he is convinced that the Trout Club will be spared.
One community’s good fortune may spell disaster for another. With the wind now in full down canyon mode, it may not spare the houses down below, including those of the two men I gave rides to up at Twin Ridge. A firefighter puts it in perspective. “The winds might be heading down the hill right now,” he explained, “but whether it is tonight or tomorrow they’ll shift again, and there will still be plenty of coals left for another uphill run.”
It is almost impossible to imagine what tomorrow will hold, but I had the same thoughts last night when I drove along Cathedral Oaks watching the fire work its way down to the power lines.
There are many things that could happen; most of them not good. On the west end, fire fighters and dozer operators are preparing plans to burn out the upper end of Winchester Canyon after doing that in Ellwood today. There is little to keep the fire from continuing west towards Gaviota or uphill towards the crest. Above Fairview there are reports the fire has already crested West Camino Cielo and crossed over into the interior. Even if the reports are untrue, the conditions may bring truth to the rumor. Fire command will need to stop fire from moving into the upper Santa Ynez River area and the threats moving west towards Lake Cachuma.
On the east end of the fire, those who live in the Trout Club are clearly at risk by proximity the Painted Cave area, a short hop across Highway 154 and a steep climb up to the homes perched up there. There are plenty of questions that need asking, of our elected officials – who appear not to have seen any of this coming – to state officials who, after numerous years of disastrous fires, still do not seem to understand the need for major changes in how we prepare for and respond to wildfire.