Diminishing sundowner winds allowed the gathering army of firefighters combating the Gap Fire to make serious progress along the southeastern edge of the inferno late Saturday night. The fire continued to grow, but at a much slower rate. As of 6 a.m. Sunday, July 6, the fire covered 9,367 acres, an increase of about 600 acres from the previous 12 hours. In the most striking sign of progress, evacuation orders were rescinded for Goleta residents living on nine streets near North Patterson Avenue in Goleta, downgraded back to a mere “evacuation warning” to stay prepared and alert for a possible order. Today, firefighters will redouble their efforts to “button up” the fire’s eastern rim in the North Patterson area to ensure that it the neighborhood is completely out of danger.
All of Saturday night’s expansion occurred on the fire’s western flank, to both the north and the south. The bulk of that increase-to the northwest-involves Forest Service land that’s unsettled, uninhabited, and uncivilized. But at the same time it extends the stretch of Camino Cielo road vulnerable to penetration should the winds shift suddenly. The West Camino Cielo Road ridgeline has been the Gap Fire’s northernmost limit, and fire officials urgently want to ensure that line does not give. Up till now, firefighters have been assisted in that effort by the evening sundowner winds, which have pushed the flames down the hillsides and canyon bottoms towards Goleta. But weather forecasters are predicting increasingly diminished sundowners tonight. That means the daytime winds that push the flames up the mountain sides (away from Goleta, but toward Camino Cielo) will go largely unopposed for the first time since the fire began six days ago.
On the inferno’s southwest front, flames encroached sufficiently into Winchester Canyon that a new evacuation warning was issued a little after midnight to all residents of Eagle Canyon, Dos Pueblos Ranch, and Santa Barbara Ranch north of Highway 101. This area, as well as the Painted Cave and Trout Club neighborhoods along the north-eastern front of the fire-where residents who have refused evacuation orders are expressing a degree of relief-will be the focus of substantial clean-up work to make sure the fire doesn’t return.
The key objective remains the same today: to keep the fire contained within Camino Cielo to the north, Old San Marcos Road to the east, Cathedral Oaks to the south and Winchester Canyon to the west.
Forest Service officials estimate the Gap Fire is 27 percent contained, up from 24 percent yesterday morning. Firefighters stress that these numbers can change in a heartbeat if the winds shift suddenly. Yesterday, the fire’s cost was estimated at $2.5 million; today the figure is $6.1 million. The total number of personnel assigned to fight the Gap Fire is currently 1,188. Today, 16 helicopters will be deployed in the aerial assault on the Gap Fire, a substantial increase from yesterday, though the number of airplanes is expected to stay the same, 10. At present, 211 engines, 22 bulldozers, and 510 hot shot firefighters are deployed in the effort. Hot Shots work on hand crews and are the fire fighting equivalent of the Green Beret or the Navy Seals, working in the brush in advance of bulldozers, whose function is to clear huge fuel-free paths in the middle of the back country to slow down the fire’s rate of advance and help starve it to death.
For the sixth night in a row, it appears no homes were lost to the flames. County Fire Public Information Officer Eli Iskow took exception to the term “lost,” saying, “It’s not that the homes weren’t lost; it’s more that we saved them. A lot of homes have been saved,” he said.
Today marks the first day that the national command team has assumed actual day-to-day control of firefighting operations. The new management team, headed by incident commander Wally Bennett, flew in from Montana two days ago, and at Sunday’s 6 a.m. command briefing, there were several jokes about there being more people stationed at the Earl Warren Show grounds than in the entire state of Montana. The new crew also struggled with Santa Barbara’s exotic place names, referring to “Goletta”-rhymes with Beretta-and to “Rancho See-low” as opposed to Cielo.
Los Padres District Ranger Cindy Chojnacky welcomed the new crew to “glamorous Santa Barbara,” but warned them that the Los Padres Forest “is the most fire prone forest in the nation.” This year alone, the Los Padres has been the site of three major-incident fires, and the season remains young. Bennett cautioned his troops, “This is still a gorilla. We have a lot of work to do.” He was effusive in his praise for outgoing incident commander Jim Smith and his team-calling them “the Set-up Seven”–noting how they’d assumed command of three major fires in short order this year, gotten things under control, set up camp, and then moved on. Smith’s chain of command will spend a couple of nights in Buelton getting a little rest and recuperation, and then will be re-assigned.
One of Bennett’s first decisions was to disband the command center at Earl Warren and consolidate the entire operation at Dos Pueblos High School. (For the past four days, there’ve been two camps, one at Earl Warren, the other at Dos Pueblos High.) Aside from not wanting to maintain a divided operation, the decision was made because Earl Warren lacks sufficient parking space to accommodate all the fire engines. As of Monday, the uncharacteristically light traffic afforded by the Fourth of July holiday will be over, and freeway access at Las Positas is notoriously troublesome at rush hour. Already there have been a couple of fender benders involving fire vehicles; presumably, the change in location will alleviate some of the traffic concerns.