Anticipating a repeat performance of yesterday afternoon’s explosion of wind and flame, Jesusita Fire incident commanders have doubled the number of helicopters they’re sending into the fray, tripled the number of fixed-wing aerial tankers, and increased the number of firefighters by 400. That brings the number of planes to 12, the number of helicopters to 10, and the total number of firefighters to 1,394-up from the previous high of 850 firefighters on Wednesday, May 6.
By emergency decree, Santa Maria airport was opened to air tankers at 1 p.m. on Wednesday-nearly 24 hours after the fire was initially reported. That means the planes deployed should be able to drop considerably more loads of retardant than during the first day of the fire, when the air tankers were refueled and loaded with fire retardant at a base in Porterville, which is a nearly two-hour round-trip from Santa Barbara as opposed to the 30 minutes to and from Santa Maria.
All these resources will be thrown against a fire described by one Forest Service commander as a “three-headed monster,” raging simultaneously to the east, the west, and the south. The fire’s size was estimated to be 1,300 acres as of early Thursday morning, May 7-with zero containment. Wednesday morning, the fire was estimated at 196 acres. Temperatures are expected to soar to 100 degrees with ambient humidity dropping to less than three percent. Winds are projected to gust in excess of 65 miles an hour.
In addition, incident commanders upped the ante in terms of the length of shifts most firefighters will be expected to work. At least for today, most have been put on 24-hour shifts. At the early morning commanders’ briefing, Kelley Gouett, eassistant incident commander, warned firefighters and their commanders to take extra care with regard to their personal safety. Gouette noted that yesterday’s flame columns jumped 100 feet high. “This fire is behaving like it’s an October fire,” he said. “It is okay to back out and let structure zones go if it is not safe.”
Gouette related that two firefighters from Ventura had been sent to a burn center in Sherman Oaks after injuring their hands and arms off Tunnel Road. “That is unacceptable,” Gouette said. (Fire and law enforcement officials said there were no reports of any South Coast residents seeking hospital treatment for injuries sustained in the fire.) The severity of their burns was characterized as “moderate.” Another was hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Other reports surfaced later that an additional five to seven firefighters sustained injuries on the job yesterday, though no details were provided. In addition, at least three firefighting vehicles – one was a pickup truck and another a truck described as a “six-pack” – were destroyed by flames, again off Tunnel Road. Given the extreme conditions in the field, Gouette urged those assembled to “let the fire front pass through, and go back in after it, putting out spot fires.”
The basic strategy is to box the Jesusita Fire in, keeping it to the south of Camino Cielo and north of Highway192, west of Gibraltar Road and east of the Windy Gap Fuel break. The planes and helicopters will be deployed to put out spot fires and to cool off the edges of the fire enough to let hand crews go in and gouge out a protective fuel break line. These crews are armed with axes known as Pulaskis, scraping tools known as McLeods, and chainsaws. The most vulnerable of all the firefighters, the hand crews come equipped with protective clothing chemically treated in such a way that if it ignites, the firefighter can put it out simply by walking away from the fire. The chief focus of these efforts will be on the fire’s southern flank, which is closest to Mission Canyon, Tunnel Road, and San Roque Canyon. No fewer than 177 fire engines have been deployed, and those-and their crews-will be stationed in driveways in neighborhoods that the fire is expected to threaten with renewed violence later this afternoon.
The exact count of homes lost on Wednesday remains uncertain, but is calculated by incident commanders as “in the dozens.” When the winds kicked up, they did so suddenly, violently, and with no gradual buildup. Captain Jack Lamb of the Orange County Fire Department, and his crew, were using flares to burn a protective black line around St. Mary’s Seminary when the winds shifted gear and “everything blew up on us.” He said, “In technical terms, two convected columns merged into one. In layman’s terms, it was huge, hot, and ugly. The flames were at our feet and over our heads.” Lamb and his crew managed to save St. Mary’s, losing only a few palm trees and one plastic recycling bin.
For all the grim chaos wreaked by the Jesusita Fire, epic natural disasters have become the necessary occasion for ritualized political ceremony. Typically, this takes the place of twice-daily press briefings, attended by as many elected officials as possible. Thursday morning’s political theater was of a higher order as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – wearing green slacks and a white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up – strode into the main hall of the Earl Warren Showgrounds 40 minutes later than scheduled. Waiting eagerly for him were all the members of the Santa Barbara City Council; county supervisors Salud Carbajal, Janet Wolfe, and Doreen Farr; City Fire Chief Andy DiMizio and his command staff; and County Fire Chief Tom Franklin and his command staff, as well as similar a who’s who from the Los Padres Forest branch of the Forest Service, city administrators, and the incident command staff of CalFire, which since 6 p.m. Wednesday has been in charge of running this fire.
Approaching a large topographic map detailing the fire’s borders, Schwarzenegger wasted little time taking charge. “Where are the challenges here?” he asked. After meeting and greeting, the governor took the podium just outside the main hall-flanked by six porta-potties-and pledged his continued support of Santa Barbara in the region’s hour of need. After praising the firefighters assembled to fight the Jesusita Fire as “the bravest … toughest : best-equipped : and most selfless,” he reminded those assembled that he’d declared the Jesusita Fire an official state of emergency the day before. The significance of that is profound. That declaration enables local officials to recover 75 percent of the costs associated with fighting the blaze from the federal government. And, as one fire chief noted the day before, “It’s all about the money.”
“We feel sorry and bad for the people of Santa Barbara that year after year you get hit with these fires,” the governor said. “But there’s no place where people jump into action faster than right here in Santa Barbara.” He recited a litany of grim factoids: that 33,500 homes had been threatened, 10 firefighters injured, and nearly 13,500 residents ordered to evacuate, 125 spending the night in shelters. He also mentioned that 177 engines and 1,400 firefighters had been deployed. Yes, the state was experiencing a financial crisis, he said, but he would “fight” to make sure all the resources were brought to bear to combat the fire.
Schwarzenegger noted that this week marks the beginning of Wildfire Awareness Week, and called on state residents to keep a 100-foot-wide swath of “defensible space” around their homes. “You provide the defense,” he said, “and we provide the offense.” Last year, California experienced 2,000 wildfires burning at roughly the same time. In response, 2,000 National Guardsmen were assigned firefighting duties. Santa Barbara has suffered four major fires in the past two years, three in the past 16 months. If the five ballot measures before state voters in the May 19 special election were to fail-as is predicted by most polls-Schwarzenegger warned that the state would have $16 billion less to spend as it sees fit. By necessity, he said, fire protection would suffer. “The money has to come from somewhere.”
After the governor finished speaking and drove off, County Fire Chief Tom Franklin responded to comments that the day’s display of political plumage betrayed a lack of a sense of immediate urgency to focus on the day’s challenges. “There is no lack of urgency,” Franklin assured remaining members of the media. Putting matters more succinctly, one high-ranking South Coast firefighter commented about the show, “Hey, he’s [Schwarzengger’s] paying for it, so I guess he’s entitled.” He explained that the united command had adopted its strategy for the day, and that this strategy was being fully implemented, regardless of the mass of brass assembled to greet the governor. After a considerable pause, he then added, “But if he’s going to pull us all away, at least he could be on time.”