Santa Barbara awoke Wednesday morning to the comforting thrum of helicopters flying overhead, dropping loads of water lifted from the Lauro Reservoir on the Jesusita Fire, the smoldering dragon belching clouds of white smoke in the foothills of San Roque Canyon. Throughout the night, firefighters from all over the state massed at Earl Warren Showgrounds, preparing to launch a ground assault on the fire for the first time and to expand the aerial attack that began yesterday.
The good news, revealed at the 7:30 a.m. Wednesday morning press conference at Earl Warren Showgrounds, was that the fire proved to be considerably smaller than estimated late Tuesday night. The latest report indicates the Jesusita Fire has consumed 196 acres, less than half of the 420 acres reported Tuesday evening. County Fire Chief Tom Franklin, an experienced firefighter at the helm now only a few months, explained that the thick heavy smoke made it hard to estimate accurately where the fire was and where it was not. He credited Tuesday night’s calmer-than-expected winds and the relatively high moisture content of the thick brush-unburned since 1964-for keeping the fire relatively under control.
Even so, the fire is not contained. At all. No fire lines have been established around any portion of its perimeter, though 15 hand crews-many populated with California state prisoners dressed in bright orange jump suits-have been dispatched to the scene of the action. Their first order of business will be to establish lines between the southern edge of the fire and the communities of Mission Canyon and Tunnel Road. The width of the fire break-a line established through back-breaking manual labor by people equipped with chain saws, axes, and scrapers-should be proportional to the height of the brush. In this case, the brush is very high. The working conditions are steep, hot, and inhospitable.
The hope is that Tuesday night’s nonstop air drops-involving two night vision-equipped choppers, one on loan from Los Angeles County and the other belonging to Santa Barbara County Fire-have cooled the fire down enough to make it approachable by the line crews.
Throughout the night, the fire took a nap, encroaching on no structures. But it remains, as it was, within a half-mile of striking distance to the nearest home. The firefighters deployed with their trucks in defensive posture throughout Mission Canyon and Tunnel Road did not have to turn their hoses on anything. More engine companies arrived throughout the evening and early morning at Earl Warren. Their function is to help in the defense of homes, should that become necessary. In the meantime, firefighters in the engine units will go through the homes to remove any flammable materials and strip the yards of anything that might feed the flames.
Meet the Firefighters
Franklin and Andy DiMizio, the City of Santa Barbara’s interim fire chief-Monday was his second day at the helm-expressed cautious and guarded optimism. But both stressed that heavy winds, which are expected to kick up around noon and reach gusts of 30 to 40 miles an hour, can change things dangerously and instantly. Franklin urged residents ordered to evacuate to leave now, not later. No new evacuation orders or warnings have been issued since Tuesday. More than 1,000 homes remain under the evacuation order and another 2,000 under warning. That, too, Franklin warned, could change.
Getting exact numbers on the firefighters assembled remains problematic. On Tuesday night, 14 strike teams showed up from mutual aid departments throughout the state. That’s 280 people and 70 engines. Presumably, that doesn’t include the 12 hand crews with 20 people each. That’s another 240. And none of that includes the response of Santa Barbara City, Santa Barbara County, UCSB, and Los Padres firefighters. All of these are not deployed at once. Many of the engine companies drove late into the night to get here; many of their firefighters will be catching up on their sleep before entering the fray.
While the entry of the ground crews into the fray is crucial, Wednesday is expected to remain mostly an aerial showdown between flames and firefighters. According to Chief Franklin, five helicopters have been secured to fight the Jesusita Fire today, and six fixed-wing aircraft. Two of those are scout planes that lead four mid-sized air tankers laden with chemical fire retardants into steep and brushy foothills. Those air tankers have been provided courtesy of Cal Fire. In addition, two fixed-wings have been ordered by the federal government, via the Forest Service. Those aircraft were last in Chico, and there’s no estimated time of arrival yet.
Currently, the aircraft are loading up on retardants at a base in Porterville, an hour-and-45-minute round-trip from Santa Barbara. The base in Paso Robles, considerably closer-and faster-is not open. Efforts to open the Santa Maria base, which Santa Barbara has traditionally enjoyed aid from, have yet to bear fruit. The differences are dramatic. From Santa Maria to the fire and back is a 30-minute flight. Given the howling winds expected later today-and throughout the week-that difference in turnaround time could be significant.
Apparently, the Forest Service changed the contract arrangement with Santa Maria from an “exclusive use” contract to an “as needed” contract. Under the executive use arrangement, a crew can be mobilized within a four-hour period to service incoming and outgoing fire-fighting planes. Under the as-needed contract, it’s a 24-hour lag time. Even so, several high-ranking firefighters were scratching their heads that Santa Maria had not become available. One noted that the call had been made more than 24 hours prior and the facility is still not ready.
Not Like the Tea Fire, Yet
Throughout the press conference, much discussion was focused on the differences between the Jesusita Fire and the Tea Fire, which burned down more than 200 homes last November. The Tea Fire started in the dark of night; the Jesusita started just before 2 p.m. in the afternoon, providing firefighters with many daylight hours in which to attack the blaze. The Tea Fire took place in November, at the tail end of the fire season, when brush is exceptionally dry and combustible. By contrast, the Jesusita Fire fuel still has enough moisture that it slows the fire’s spread. This has allowed firefighters to “get ahead of the power curve,” said Franklin. Still, the wind remains a dangerous wild card.
The fire is a “unified command” event, meaning no one agency is in charge, and that Santa Barbara City, Santa Barbara County, Cal Fire, and Forest Service agencies are all working cooperatively. Unlike in recent fires past, press releases and information are being released by two separate Emergency Operations Centers, one run by the city, the other run by the county. In the initial hours of the fire, these two agencies have suffered from occasional lapses of coordination. Their respective spokespersons have released contradictory information about the number of firefighters deployed, and elected officials from the two jurisdictions have found themselves confused as to which agency was holding press conferences, and when. Tuesday evening’s press conference came as a complete surprise to at least two county supervisors, and a relative surprise to at least two city elected representatives. The next press conference is scheduled to take place at noon on Wednesday.