Aided by mild Monday night winds and cooler temperatures, fire fighters managed to get the Gap Fire 50 percent contained over the course of Monday night. But containment does not mean the fires are out, just that they are effectively surrounded, so a sudden gust, change of wind direction, or a few airborne embers can change everything. Last night, the fire grew by only 110 acres, the least it’s expanded since the Gap Fire began almost a week ago on July 1. This morning, it was listed at 9,720 acres; 12 hours ago, it was 9,600 acres and only 35 percent contained. To bring containment to 100 percent, firefighters – now numbering 1,310 in the field – will have to carve an additional eight miles of fire line into nearly impenetrable brush that hasn’t burned in 50 years.
The good news is that the fire threat to urban and suburban Goleta has been all but completely “mopped up.” Residents who had been ordered out of their homes along the northern stretches of the Fairview, Patterson, and La Patera neighborhoods late last week have been allowed to begin trickling back starting Saturday might. That process is now complete. Evacuation orders remain in effect for residents of the smaller mountain communities near Painted Cave and the Trout Club even though fire fighters are confident they’ve established strong solid fire lines there. Concern remains that there could still be a new flare up of older smoldering embers. Given the proximity of these communities to West Camino Cielo – the Maginot line of this fire – firefighters aren’t taking any chances.
Firefighters are expected to redouble their focus today – as they did Monday – on protecting the strategic ridgeline of West Camino Cielo Road from the fire’s steady growth to the northwest. Lines of fire crews armed with drip torches and flare guns started smaller brush fires to the ocean-side of the road to help expand the fire lines already in place. Steady coastal breezes then blew these fires up the steep rocky terrain towards Camino Cielo. When they encountered the existing fire lines, they ran out of fuel and sputtered out.
Camino Cielo’s strategic importance is hard to overstate. Should the Gap Fire make it to the other side of Camino Cielo, it would then have an unobstructed downhill run towards the backcountry, the Santa Ynez Valley, and the Gaviota Coast. As it spreads east and west, it could then double back towards the coast, threatening anew coastal communities that have just been spared and others not yet immediately threatened by the Gap Fire.
Ironically, the cool moist marine layers that have settled on the South Coast the past few days have hampered firefighters in their efforts to create smaller controlled burns via “back-firing.” The additional moisture in the air has made it harder to get some of these fires started. The heat wave predicted for this week will address that issue, and today temperatures are expected to reach 98 degrees.
In addition, firefighters will be focusing their efforts on some of the big ranches lying to the western outskirts of the Goleta Valley. But as the Gap Fire’s imminent threat to neighborhoods diminishes, on-the-ground commanders will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in their quest for resources. Statewide, there are 330 active fires still in need of serious attention. These – and hundreds of others now extinguished or contained – have already eaten up over 600,000 acres of California forests and back country. As a result of this competitive shift, there will be 14 bulldozers cutting fire lines today, as opposed to 22 two days ago. The number of helicopters and air tankers has likewise diminished, down to nine and six respectively.
The latest price tag for efforts to fight the Gap Fire is $9.3 million; yesterday, it was $7.6 million.