At this morning’s briefing, Forest Service Incident Commander Jim Smith told the assembled fire fighters that today would be a critical day.
“Stay vigilant, stay persistent and let’s focus on sealing off Old San Marcos Pass Road today,” he said.
Today, efforts will be focused on two areas. The most critical of these is San Jose Creek. While there is some fire activity creeping down into the canyon, no flames have crossed the creek. Air Operations officer Brad Joost added that firefighters can expect to get whatever resources they will need. “We are still the number one priority in the state,” he said.
On the western end of the fire perimeter, the upper ends of Ellwood, Winchester, and Eagle Canyons appear to have been secured, and structure protection groups are in place with dozens of engines should the fire head down canyon. Fire activity is expected, however, to expand up Tecolote Canyon towards Condor Point and the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains today. Incident meteorologist Rick Thompson added that temperatures will be in the 80s to low 90s with upslope winds developing in the afternoon that could push the fire up towards the crest.
This western portion of West Camino Cielo is extremely steep, rugged country and filled with thick brush that has not burned since the Refugio Fire in 1955. At fire camp California Department of Forestry crew leaders huddled with Forest Service District Ranger John Bridgewater near the fire maps in an attempt to find anchor points that the fire crews and dozer operators could begin building line.
The objective for the day is to keep the fire from spreading west of Dos Pueblos Canyon or north of Camino Cielo, a task that may be difficult if the upslope winds are too strong. Pointing to the almost vertical 1,000-foot headwall that leads out of Tecolote Canyon up to Condor Point, Bridgewater explained to the crew leaders that it if the fire crossed the creek and took off it would probably take less than an hour for it to burn up to the summit.
“You really don’t want to be up there,” he said, “if the fire takes off and heads into the upper slopes.”
Thus far winds have favored fire fighting efforts.
Thursday night, as I watched the flames running uphill towards the Haney Tract and spotting down into San Jose Creek, it appeared that the fire would overrun homes within the hour. But shortly after 9 p.m., as residents were frantically evacuating the area further down Old San Marcos Pass Road, sundowner winds began to push back against the wall of fire and within fifteen minutes the flames turned back downhill.
Quickly the worry shifted from the homes above to those down below. Near the North Patterson area, engine crews were busy putting out small fires that were threatening several homes there – all were saved.
“It turned out we got the perfect wind conditions,” Cindy Chojnacky, the District Ranger for the Santa Barbara Ranger District commented. “They were strong enough on top to push it back downhill but weak enough that they didn’t overrun the houses.” For most of Friday the winds continued to favor fire fighters. Ridgetop winds of 15-to-20 miles per hour continued to flow downhill and kept the advancing flames from continuing uphill towards the Haney Tract. From the deck of one of the homes I watched as plane after plane swooped down, each pouring thousands of gallons of the bright red retardant on the chaparral. Not too far away a pod of five huge helicopters swarmed over the edge of San Jose Creek, dampening the eastern edge of the fire line and catching spot fires as they started in the canyon itself. By evening both the Trout Club and the Haney Tract had been spared for another night.
Likely the wind will determine what occurs today, as it has been the past several days. While conditions remain favorable on the east end of the fire near Old San Marcos Pass Road, there is concern about what will happen in the Tecolote area.
Homes in the lower canyons appear to be safe now but there is concern whether the fire can be kept from continuing west into Dos Pueblos Canyon or north up to the crest.
For now, the priority is the eastern side of the fire. If Old San Marcos Pass Road and the section of West Camino Cielo to the Winchester Gun Club can be sealed off, the primary threat to homes in the community – at least for the next few days – will lessen dramatically.