Air tankers making water drops on the Jesusita Fire early Wednesday morning
Paul Wellman

With a small, steady stream of smoke emerging from the mountains in the distance before them, fire officials briefed the press and public at noon on Wednesday with the latest on the Jesusita Fire, which, in the four hours since the last update, hadn’t progressed much at all. But by about 2:45 p.m., thick brown clouds of smoke were again floating over Santa Barbara, with orange flames visible from downtown.

“It’s taking off pretty good,” said Independent correspondent Ray Ford, who spent the morning with hand crews on the fire’s west end but had moved to Inspiration Point in the afternoon. “The wind is blowing uphill, there’s heat, there’s a lot of activity. It’s a good possibility that this could head uphill pretty good.”

Meanwhile, a mobile home caught fire near State Street, sending another column of smoke into the sky, igniting nearby brush, and causing some to wonder if it had any relation to the Jesusita Fire. Authorities were working to close the State Street off-ramp at the time of this posting.

The afternoon ignition of the Jesusita Fire is no surprise. Officials at the noon Earl Warren Showgrounds press conference were wary that the winds would pick up, and no one listening in the 90 degree heat had to be told it was hot out. Winds are supposed to reach gusts of 60 miles per hour, while the relative humidity is already in the teens, a level considerably less than ideal.

But even as potential danger looms, the good news continues to come in. Most importantly, it was a calm night with low winds. As is usual for the beginning of the traditional fire season, the brush is still moist. And despite competition from a fire in Arizona, fire officials here in town thus far have not been denied the resources they’re requesting. There are currently five helicopters making water drops and six fixed-wing tankers dropping fire retardant on the area. In addition, as of roughly 11 a.m., the Santa Maria Airport is now set up to handle refueling and reloading retardant-dropping tankers on the fire.

That means the six tankers can get back and forth in just around 30 minutes, not including the time it takes to pump another load of fire retardant. Yesterday, there were two tankers flying to and from Portersville, which is closer to two hours round trip. The number of tanker trips made yesterday as opposed to today was not available, but is obviously considerably larger.

While earlier news suggested increased retardant drops from the air could be making a greater difference, city fire Battalion Chief Pat McElroy said air support had been more than adequate. The air attack is obviously helpful, he said, but the battle will be won on the ground. The men and women in the hand crews on the ground will be the ones that make the difference. There are currently 884 firefighting personnel working on the blaze, and the organized combat is taking shape.

As of this morning, hand crews were on the front lines, battling the fire. “We are engaging where we can engage,” McElroy said, explaining it was difficult to get hand crews close to the fire yesterday and this morning with potential wind shifts causing safety concerns. Engine strike teams continue to do preparation for structure defense.

There has been one fire-related injury, though minor. No other information was available.

Sheriff Bill Brown expects the current evacuation orders in place to remain at least through the end of today, and vehicular access remains restricted. More than 2,000 reverse 911 calls went out yesterday, and 1,200 homes remain evacuated. No structures are damaged or destroyed, and the fire remains about a half-mile from doing damage to any buildings.

A new command established by Cal Fire is expected to take over at 6 p.m., and there is a possibility that the governor could declare a state of emergency.

Back at the frontlines, Ray Ford explained that the fire seems to have split above Seven Falls. Instead of heading toward town, it seems to be blazing up the ridge toward Cathedral Peak on the other side of that popular hiking area. He reports that tankers had been “hammering all day long.” It had been relatively mild up to about 2:30 p.m., said Ford, who also met with investigators looking at the start of the fire just off Jesusita Trail. There is no transformer in the area, said Ford, knocking down one theory. He also said that the notion of a Vandenberg-launched rocket causing the fire also was considered unlikely by all. “I don’t know what people are thinking about rockets and transformers,” said Ford. “It clearly started on the trail.”

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