House-to-House Fire Battles Possible

Unsure of What Will Come Tonight, Firefighters Prepare to Confront Jesusita Fire

An air tanker drops fire retardant on the Jesusita Fire.
Paul Wellman (file)

Near the frontlines of the Jesusita Fire, which has burned 420 acres as of 9 p.m., the situation changes rapidly from hope to fear and back again. So reports Independent correspondent Ray Ford, who is watching the fire from Spyglass Ridge Road, an offshoot of Tunnel Road near where San Roque Canyon folds into Mission Canyon.

Just before 7 p.m., Ford was scared that the fire, which had then burned about 160 acres, would be burning homes in Mission Canyon this evening. “Everything is starting to turn straight downhill,” said Ford, stationed on the road where a couple of fire engines were preparing to protect six or seven houses. “I would estimate that there is potential for the fire being down on Tunnel Road in three to four hours, maybe less : I don’t see how there won’t be some battles going on later tonight.”

But then, a little after 7:30 p.m., Ford called in with a more optimistic tone. “It’s starting to really cool down up here. We’re starting to get a marine influence,” he said, explaining that there are flare-ups, but the helicopters seem able to quickly knock them down. “Things seem to be slightly settled down. We don’t have quite the amount of smoke.” He said that a cloud cover seemed to be coming over the mountains from the Santa Ynez Valley. He added, “Things are more hopeful now then I think they were a half hour or 45 minutes ago.”

Around 9 p.m., reports confirmed that the fire had already burned more than 400 acres but still no homes. At that time, Ford seemed poised between hope and fear. “It’s starting to pick up on the ridge,” said Ford, indicating that the mountains above Mission Canyon seemed afire. “Looking from the back side, everything seems aglow over there.” But, said Ford, “Everything is real slow. It kind of comes and goes : but it’s relatively mellow. It flares up and dies down, flares up and dies down.”

He explained that a firefighter had come to his spot on Spyglass and explained that the fire was burning the Jesusita Trail area and into the west fork of Mission Creek, near Seven Falls and toward the historic bridge. If that is the case, said Ford, it means that the fire would have to make a pretty dramatic turn to enter the top of Mission Canyon proper. “That means there is maybe more of a possibility for the fire to continue toward Las Canoas and the Tea Fire area,” said Ford. “But it’s all conjecture.”

Latest Fire Details

In a dry landscape full of heavy brush where homes abut the wilderness, the weather always controls the wildfires, so all eyes are on this evening’s shifting winds. Current reports suggest that the warm weather with high wind conditions will persist, which is bad. But those winds seem to be pushing to the northwest and away from neighborhoods, which is favorable for firefighting, as are the predictions for relatively high humidity and cooler nighttime air.

A press conference was held earlier this afternoon at the Cater Water Treatment Plant’s command center to discuss official numbers, which have again proved hard to come by in the emergency situation. According to representatives from the city and county fire departments, about 1,000 people have been successfully evacuated from their homes, and all 1,200 homes have had their doors knocked on by law enforcement officers. Though the following numbers have shifted throughout the day, representatives from the city and county said at the press conference that about 70 to 80 firefighters are on the scene. More recently, however, the city’s fire spokesperson John Ahlman said that an educated guess would be that there are more than 200 firefighters working on the scene in a variety of capacities. Another 14 strike teams-each with five engines and 20 firefighters-are also on the way to the Earl Warren Showgrounds staging area, primarily to do structure protection. That’s according to County Fire Chief Tom Franklin, who stated at the press conference that the first priority of the fire fighting effort thus far has been evacuation. Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum strongly echoed that sentiment, telling residents to be ready to move and to not ask twice when told to do so. “It’s more important that you save your life than some trinket,” she said.

People seen evacuating from San Roque Canyon on Tuesday, May 5, just hours after the Jesusita Fire started.
Paul Wellman

Four helicopters have been fighting the fire throughout the day; two blue-and-whites from Santa Barbara County, one red-and-white Cal Fire, and one yellow-and-blue Ventura County chopper. In addition, scouting planes and two state air tankers, which are stationed in Paso Robles, have been dispatched to the fire. [CORRECTION: The planes were stationed in Porterville, not Paso Robles.] The tankers have been seen making fire retardant drops through the day. Efforts to obtain federal air tankers have not yet paid off, and the only two available are in Arizona. As the firefight goes into the evening, some of the helicopters will have to stop due to lack of visibility, but at least one of the County Fire choppers is equipped with night vision capability. Also, a Fire Hawk helicopter from Los Angeles County should arrive later this evening, touching down at Santa Barbara Junior High School. The Fire Hawk has a capacity of 700 gallons a drop and, like the County Fire chopper, comes equipped with night vision goggles, allowing the pilots to keep dropping through the night.

Evacuations, School Closures, and More

As for evacuation, the Red Cross is operating a shelter at Dos Pueblos High School (previously at the First Presbyterian Church at State and Constance streets). Another shelter may be opened at the UCSB MultiCultural Center if needed. Small animals can go to the S.B. Humane Society, on 5399 Overpass Road, off of Patterson Road. Large animals can be taken to Earl Warren Showgrounds. The famous goats of Mission Canyon, which were used to clear brush in the area for fire prevention, have also been evacuated, reportedly to their homebase in the Santa Ynez Valley.

“If you’re asked to leave, you need to do it now,” said County Fire spokesperson David Sadecki. “Leave early.” He also said that a new tip line was operational. Anyone with information on how the fire was started should call 686-5074.

Jesusita Fire Evacuation Area

On the ground, the evacuation order seems to be being followed by about 50 percent of the residents. Residents could be seen evacuating with truckloads and trailers full of beds, furniture, horses, and, reportedly, one llama. One woman was with her elderly parents, and they were watching the fire together. (In fact, many people could be seen near the Cater Water Treatment Plant watching the fire.) The trio said that they weren’t leaving yet because they wouldn’t be allowed back in. And like many of the foothill dwellers in Santa Barbara, the woman looked at the scars of the Gap Fire to the east and the Tea Fire to the west, and said, “It was only a matter of time.” They left five minutes later.

The Wood Glen Senior Facility at 3010 Foothill Road also evacuated. Many residents have been moved to Valle Verde, 900 Calle De Los Amigos. Call 687-1571 for info.

On the other hand, many residents are staying put. Johnny Morosin, former owner of the Greek-Italian Deli on State Street, lives near the Cater Water Treatment Plant and Lauro Reservoir on Jesusita Lane. He has not evacuated his house, but pointed to the reservoir and said, “I got a big lake over there. If it gets any worse : ” Morosin, who was sipping white wine at the time, also had sprinklers spraying his roof.

Susan and Stephen Robeck, who are holding an antique model that belonged to his father, live in the Jesusita Fire evacuation zone and did leave following the order.
Paul Wellman

Up San Roque Canyon, other neighbors are expressing annoyance over the fact that the media is driving large, satellite trucks-some from the Los Angeles area, some from Santa Barbara-into the area while residents are being asked to leave. In particular, one woman, who came down in a blue pick-up truck-accompanied by a child who wore a face mask, her truck bed holding a dirt bike and lawnmower-berated the media loudly for intruding into the threatened zone, and then directed her ire at the firefighters for letting them do so.

As of 8 p.m. Tuesday night, no one has had to go to the hospital for smoke inhalation problems, explained to Cottage Hospital’s nursing supervisor Denise McDonald. She also said that the smoke levels are not at the risk level of the Tea Fire yet.

A woman in a blue pick-up truck tries to keep the media trucks from getting onto private property.
Paul Wellman

Because of the fire, Peabody Charter, Cesar Chavez Charter, Roosevelt Elementary, Cleveland Elementary, and Franklin Elementary will be closed tomorrow.

There are traffic control points now on Highway 192 (which includes Foothill Road, Mountain Drive, Mission Ridge Road, and Standwood Drive); at La Cumbre Road, Morada Lane, Ontare Road, San Roque Road, Laurel Canyon Road, Alamar Avenue, Glen Albyn Road, Tye Road, Cheltham Road, Mission Canyon Terrace, Tunnel Road, Foothill Road, and Mountain Drive; and at two locations on El Cielito Road.

Preparation and Hope

While wind may be a wildfire’s mastermind, there are certainly preventative measures homeowners can take to prepare their forest-surrounded houses for wildfires such as this. Up on Spyglass Ridge, Ray Ford reported that six or seven homeowners have done a fantastic job of preparing their homes for the big fire. “The clearance is excellent. They’ve done a real good job. If the fire came straight for the house I am at right here, and was pushing forward, I would stay,” said Ford, explaining that the surrounding brush and grass has been mowed to less than an inch and that there are shrubs and small trees only every 50 or so feet. “I wouldn’t think anything about it.” He continued, “There’s been a major effort at the end of Tunnel Road and the whole surrounding area to do a lot of clearance. It’s really paid off, I think.”

A helicopter fighting the Jesusita Fire refills at Lauro Reservoir.
Paul Wellman

That is also the case for Independent copy editor Jean Yamamura, whose home is in Mission Canyon. She said that her home is well cleared, and that firefighters are remaining in the area because they believe it is defensible. Her husband is also there, and reported that the fire seems to be on the hillside one over from their home. The air is smoky and ashy, he told her, but “strangely” cool. The wind is not gusting as of 9 p.m.

Though Ford and others have become more hopeful, all is not well yet. He is seeing pockets of fire on the ridge above Tunnel Road, down from Inspiration Point. But until the fire starts coming down at the neighborhood, there’s little firefighters can do, other than hope that the helicopter and DC-10 tanker drops do their best to keep the flames away.

“Basically, there’s nothing they can do in terms of fighting it from the ground,” said Ford, explaining that since the area is so rugged and full of heavy brush, a ground front would endanger the firefighters lives. “It’s just all air-attack. : It’s when the helicopters can’t do as good a job. I don’t know what that’ll mean.”

On Spyglass Ridge, the firefighters are “settled in,” said Ford, sitting in their trucks and waiting. “It’s a waiting game,” said Ford, who explained that only about two trucks remain there, since the others moved more into Mission Canyon

Ford and others are entirely unsure of what the night holds. “It’s really difficult to say,” he said.

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