Amid a gentle dusting of ash flakes, county fire officials described how the Gap Fire burned all the way down the mountainside and into the actual yard space of a Goleta home Thursday night and how the firefighters on hand sought refuge from the blistering heat by going inside. The house, located on Camino Manadero just off North Patterson, was not damaged and the three firefighters emerged unscathed.
Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, fire officials insisted that no homes have been claimed by the Gap Fire other than a mobile home located on the northern fringes of Glen Annie Road. In addition, firefighters managed to squash two smaller spot fires that had sprouted up along Old San Marcos Road, making them the most eastern edge of the conflagration. One was five feet by ten feet in size, and the other was about a quarter-acre. And Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum-dressed in red, white, and blue-striped sneakers-indicated the city’s fireworks display would go on as planned, despite the City of Goleta’s decision to cancel theirs. “As many people say they want it as those who say they don’t,” Blum explained.” These details emerged during this Friday’s edition of the 2 p.m. press conference, held every day by the county’s emergency response offices to give information updates and allow elected officials the opportunity to make whatever points are on their minds.
The bigger picture, however, was that the fire that burned through 1,400 acres yesterday morning and 5,400 acres Friday morning is now pushing 6,000 acres. Not all of that is continuous, uninterrupted flame however. Fire officials aren’t bothering to even conjecture an estimate for fire containment. But because of this growth, fire officials have also expanded their evacuation warning area to include the entire mountain side of Cathedral Oaks from Farren Road – located in outer Goleta well past Ellwood – to Highway 154. Very roughly, as many as 3,000 homes fall within that area. Last night, nearly 1,600 structures were ordered evacuated. That translates roughly to 5,000 people being pushed from their homes as a result of the Gap Fire.
As of this dateline, no new evacuations have been ordered. But depending on wind conditions, that could change. County Fire Chief Chris Hahn expressed exceptionally guarded optimism, noting that tonight’s weather forecasts call for slightly milder winds than firefighters faces last night. The 40 mph wind-fanned blaze last night marked the scariest moment of the Gap Fire thus far.
Tonight, the forecasters are calling for winds blowing 15-30 miles per hour. In either case, at night these “sundowner” winds push the fire down the steep, rocky, and brush-choked slopes toward human habitation and urbanized Goleta. (By day, however, the fire seeks out higher ground, and pushes up toward Camino Cielo Road – thus far its northernmost limit. Firefighters are extremely nervous about what might happen if the fire gets past Camino Cielo to threaten the mountain communities of Painted Cave, San Marcos Pass, the Trout Club, and Hidden Valley.) Standing between Goleta’s suburban periphery and this back country inferno is a belt of lemon and avocado orchards. Because these trees are irrigated and spaced out from one another, they tend to slow the fire down, giving firefighters a better chance to blast it with their hoses.
Reflecting the Gap Fire’s growing size, complexity and threat to human life and property, the command structure of the firefighting effort will shift from Type II to Type I as of 6 a.m. tomorrow. The new designation means the command team will be national in scope, rather than regional or local. (When the fire started, it was classified as a Type III incident.) Running the show will be a new team that flew in from Montana Thursday evening. What makes this of potential significance to the local community is that Type I commanders typically have access to greater firefighting resources and have greater spending discretion. Given the intense competition for resources throughout wildfire-plagued California and the rest of the nation, it’s hardly a sure thing the new commanders can automatically get their hands on more line crews and more aircraft – the two most desperately needed resources. But they will be in a better position to compete effectively for them.
Currently, 10 aircraft – including a DC-10 and six helicopters – are fighting the Gap Fire. Yesterday morning, there were four of each. The South Coast would have had two more helicopters than that, but the Big Sur Fire escalated, imperiling several structures, and two aircraft were sent north to assist in that effort. According to the Forest Service, there are 1,072 firefighters enlisted in the Gap Fire campaign. That’s up from 350 yesterday morning. (Although Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared the Goleta fire a state of emergency, it’s not clear that the Gap Fire remains the Number One firefighting priority throughout the state that it was Thursday. That designation fluctuates with almost as much volatility as the stock market.)
County Supervisor Janet Wolf praised Goletans for keeping a cool head in trying times. “We all know what the implication would be if there was any kind of panic,” she said of the evacuation warnings and orders. That hasn’t happened, she said, because “everyone has acted responsibly.”
Goleta Mayor Michael Bennett took the opportunity to express some serious Goleta pride, giving a shout out to Direct Relief International (DRI) – which he noted was a Goleta based nonprofit humanitarian aid organization – for giving away 12,000 face masks to keep tiny particulate matter carried by the smoke from lodging too deeply in residents’ lungs. (DRI, by the way, will be distributing masks again tomorrow, from noon to 3 p.m. at the Camino Real Marketplace.) Bennett also exhumed the dead body of California’s failed energy deregulation effort of 10 years ago and kicked it a few times. Before deregulation was passed, he said, Southern California Edison maintained two small “peaker” plants in Goleta, to provide the area with energy if and when the main transmission lines were unable to carry the load. (Traditionally that happens during peak demand periods during high summer heat.) He noted that the peakers were built specifically in response to the Romero Canyon Fire of 1971. But since deregulation, he said Southern California Edison was forced to sell off its peaker plants, which have since sat idle and poorly maintained. “This is something that has to change,” he vowed.
Evacuation, it appears, will become an indefinite lifestyle for an increasing number of people. The Red Cross entertained 100 guests – and many of their pets – Thursday night at San Marcos High School, where it has a capacity for 350. If need be, the Red Cross has three other shelters it can open elsewhere throughout the county. Fire officials cautioned it’s still too soon to begin discussing when the evacuation orders can and will be lifted. As long as the fire remains a threat, residents will not be allowed back in their homes.
Power outages, likewise, could become a persistent fact of life for South Coast residents. A major transmission line runs horizontally across the body of the Gap Fire, and the smoke and heat impede the transmission lines’ ability to carry electricity. As Edison seeks to reroute energy through other grids – lines that aren’t constituted to carry such a large load – South Coast residents from Carpinteria to Gaviota were warned that they need to conserve energy all the time. Edison spokesperson Jane Brown pointed out that plasma TV sets use as much electricity turned off as when turned on. She urged people to unplug their screens, not merely to turn them off.