An all-star cast of local elected officials and high-ranking law enforcement officers gathered on the steps of Santa Barbara City Hall early this evening. Even as the yellow smoke clouds of the Tea Fire billowed visibly into the skies above them, their message was upbeat and cautiously hopeful about the massively destructive and barely contained inferno still smoldering in the foothills of Montecito and Santa Barbara. Despite today’s high temperatures and low humidity levels, the Tea Fire has had virtually “no movement” along its borders since early this morning thanks in large part to fire suppression efforts and, more importantly, weaker than anticipated winds. “The wind never came up on the fire area today and that benefited us greatly,” said Santa Barbara County Fire Deputy Chief Tom Franklin, before adding, “But now is not the time to relax. Everyone has to be diligent tonight : Things could change real fast.”
With more than 1,500 acres scorched, an estimated 100 to 200 homes destroyed or damaged (though that number is, according to all parties involved, very fluid and wll remain so for at least the next day or two as crews get a better handle on the situation), the Tea Fire, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, was currently contained to an area roughly defined by Hot Springs Road to the east, Mission Canyon and Tunnel roads to the west and north of APS. Currently, the fire is zero percent contained while evacuations orders in effect for most, if not all, of the areas outlined above. Further, with 20 to 30 mph wind sundowner winds (i.e., northeast and offshore) forecast for much of tonight, the threat of a revival of the Tea Fire’s destructive powers remains a very real possibility. According to Brown, neighborhoods west of Mission Canyon and south of APS “need to be prepared to evacuate in a minute’s notice” tonight should current fire lines fail to hold.
Starting just after 5:45 p.m. last night, the Tea Fire became real dangerous real fast. “Basically, last night was more about evacuation than it was about firefighting,” opined City Fire Chief Ron Prince. Prince’s observation, however, points more to the sheer volume of evacuees–at one point nearly one third of the city’s population was under either mandatory evacuation or warning status–than it does the lack of heroic firefighting efforts last night. City, county, federal, and state fire crews battled the blaze through the night (some 800 personnel are currently on hand battling the Tea), saving dozens of homes from certain destruction.
Most notable was the presence of helicopter water drops all night long. A rare occurrence in the world of firefighting, Santa Barbara County is one of the few places in the nation where crews employ aerial water drops under cover of darkness thanks to night-vision goggles provided by the volunteer Santa Barbara Firefighters Alliance. All told, pilots wearing the goggles were responsible for more than 100 much needed drops last night. “Goodness knows how many more homes would have been destroyed had they not been up there flying through the night,” testified Brown. It is also believed that on-the-ground structure protection was responsible for saving at least three homes in the hard hit stretches of upper Coyote Road.
According to authorities, the cause of the fire is still unknown and is under investigation. While no fatalities have been reported, it is believed that a 98-year-old man, evacuated last night from the Circle Drive area, passed away this afternoon.