At Saturday evening’s Command Briefing-an event that is held every morning and evening at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., right before each crew’s 12-hour shift-excitement and anticipation showed in the faces and gestures of nearly every firefighter, as they prepared to go back into the work that many of them had left just eight hours earlier. The manpower focused on the Gap Fire jumped from 1,186 personnel as of this morning’s fact-posting, to 2,572 firefighters Saturday evening, July 5, to battle a blaze which has cost the state $6.2 million since July 1, when it started. Crews heading out tonight will have 12 miles of aversion line to complete in their effort to increase the fire’s degree of containment, currently estimated at 28 percent.
The crews’ primary focus during tonight’s shift will be tying up the northeast corner of the fire to avert flames from crossing near the Trout Club and jumping Highway 154 toward Santa Barbara. West Camino Cielo has been providing an excellent natural barrier for the fire; keeping it from sparking over to the opposite side is imperative.
Weather conditions look favorable tonight, with weak sundowner winds clocking at 16 miles per hour, pushing the fire away from Goleta, where firefighters have contained most of the South end of the blaze. Stronger winds of 25 miles per hour are predicted to pick up from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Humidity was 38 percent as of 9 p.m.
Identifying natural barriers and constructing dozer trails around the perimeter of the fire lines are two of the firefighters’ basic tasks, along with backfire operations-lighting fire from the dozer lines to burn out the natural fuel ahead of the fire. The firefighters are also protecting houses by any means necessary, from chain-sawing vegetation to getting rid of flammable lawn furniture. So far only four outdoor structures-such as sheds–have burned.
Governor Schwarzenegger was not the only elected official to appear at the Earl Warren Showgrounds today; Goleta Mayor Michael Bennett showed up to support the crews who were about to head out for the night’s containment work. Information Officer Stanton Florea commented on the governor’s appearance Saturday morning, “It’s good, it helps with morale. People on the ground know that they are supported.” (Although a few of the hardened firemen saw the governor’s appearance merely as a publicity grab, and not very inspiring at all.)
Many of the crews had just left fires in Yosemite to join the fight against the Gap Fire. San Miguel Fire Captain Deron Hunt said that he has not seen his family in over 15 days, and the Gap Fire will add to that furlough from home. But these men appeared to love their job, and their sense of fraternity was palpable as they joked among themselves during their downtime. Their knowledge and ability to handle forest fires far outstrips that of outside help from National Guardsmen or other military–as they explained. Firefighters emphasized that they never underestimate what a fire will or can do, but despite the difficult conditions and long weeks in the field, they seemed capable of more than capable of adjusting to wind changes that might cause this fire to spread unpredictably.