Incident commanders of the Jesusita Fire find themselves waging a two-front war against an unpredictable inferno that seems to be moving in opposite directions at the same time, as of mid-morning on Friday, May 8. To the west, flames that have jumped Highway 154 appear intent on moving in a northwesterly direction, and have made it as far as the San Antonio Creek drainage. At the western border of the City of Santa Barbara, no homes have been lost on Northridge Road. The fire has not made it past the Maria Ygnacio Creek. To the extent there’s good news, this land is national Forest Service property and not inhabited.
To the east, the fire has made it into the Cold Springs Creek drainage, further up the hillsides from homes. Because there are homes on the periphery, though, fire fighters are giving this high priority. No estimate has been provided on the distance between the flames and the nearest homes. Mandatory evacuation orders were issued about midnight to get many Montecitans out of their homes. Westmont was notified at 7 a.m. today that they’d have to evacuate students no later than noon.
To the south, firefighters have successfully held the line at Highway 192, though the flames have come perilously close to that highway at many spots in the area in between San Roque and the fire’s western extremity. Last night saw intense hand-to-hand, house-to-house combat by fire crews. Some homes on the mountain side of Highway 192 were lost, said John Ahlman, a spokesperson with the Santa Barbara City Fire Department, but many were saved.
Along Ontare Road, the fighting was especially fierce. “We were trying to go direct on the fire [approach the fire directly] through the fuel, but once the wind picked up it was back to the races,” said Los Angeles County Fire strike crew leader Ron Reed. “We got pushed back to the foothills and then we got pushed back some more.”
At a press conference held at Earl Warren showground early Friday morning, incident commanders said they expected today’s weather to be a “carbon copy” of yesterday’s. By that they mean hot and windy, with temperatures approaching triple digits, relative humidity dipping into the single digits, and winds from 40 to 60 miles an hour.
Fire officials might also have described the weather as completely unpredictable. The winds yesterday defied all expectations. Instead of arriving mid-afternoon as expected, they showed up at 7 p.m. And when they arrived, they acted positively weird. For example, even though winds were stronger by far along the eastern edge, the fire on that flank was relatively quiet. The most activity occurred along the western edge even though the winds were milder. In any case, fire officials said they’re anticipating walls of fire 50 to 100 feet high today.
Joining the fray for the first time Friday at approximately 11a.m. will be a DC-10, the heavyweight of firefighting air tankers, capable of dumping 12,000 gallons of retardant in a single drop. DC 10s have been deployed in previous Santa Barbara fires, but privately many fire fighters have expressed concern that the plane is too massive and clumsy to navigate Santa Barbara’s inaccessible box canyons with the agility and precision needed. The DC-10 will be based at Edwards Air Force Base, or Lancaster, meaning that it will have to travel approximately 100 miles to drop its load on the Jesusita Fire.
With or without the DC-10, the incident commanders will have 13 fixed-wing air tankers-four Type Ones and 9 smaller Type Twos-to take on the fire. In addition, 15 helicopters will be deployed. Incident commanders said they’ll have 2,500 crewmembers involved by today, a major jump over the 1,400 on Thursday.
Up-to-date estimates on the number of homes destroyed or damaged remain imprecise. The number 75, released Thursday evening, May 7, was the most recent estimate and represented primarily the count from areas burned Wednesday night. CalFire estimated that 10 percent of the fire has been contained, a figure also released Thursday evening. As of Friday morning, May 8, an estimated 30,500 people have been ordered evacuated and another 23,000 warned to get ready to move, said Sheriff Bill Brown. The Red Cross Shelter at Dos Pueblos was maxed out Thursday night at 240-and some of the people turned away at the door slept in their cars in the Dos Pueblos parking lot. UCSB picked up the slack by opening the Events Center to as many as 900 fire-fueled refugees, while the Thunder Dome on campus opened to people with medical challenges. Cost estimates of the fire are still preliminary in the extreme. Incident Commander Joe Waterson said he knew it was considerably more than the $2.6 million threshold required to secure federal re-imbursement, but by how much, he could not say.
To secure the homes of evacuated residents and keep looky-loos from choking the streets, law enforcement has assembled a team of 285 officers, many coming from Los Angeles, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties.