Firefighters Gird for the Worst

Cool Breezes Blowing, but Could Change at Any Moment


Incident Commander Joe Waterman of CalFire said it’s still too soon for him to say he feels even “cautiously optimistic” about turning the corner on the Jesusita Fire, but he added, “I’m not in terror either.” Waterman’s comments came in response to a reporter’s question whether South Coast residents could expect another night of terror, following the two that preceded it.

Waterman was speaking at the regular evening press conference this Friday that always involves a healthy showing of fire commanders, law enforcement leaders, and enough elected officials to stock a political convention. Waterman observed that weather reports predicted that Santa Barbara would be in the grips of Sundowner winds by late Friday afternoon. Instead, he noted, the South Coast was awash in cool ocean breezes that are pushing the fire up the mountainsides, at least for the time being.

He didn’t need to remind anyone how quickly that could change. Just 24-hours earlier-at another such press conference-incident commanders were enjoying the fact that the stiff gusting winds that had been predicted had yet to materialize. The winds would arrive, if about two hours late, and the fire would virtually explode along its west side, and jump clear across Highway 154 above San Antonio Creek.

Like the day before, Friday’s daylight operations proceeded well; the size of the fire-now five- to seven-miles wide-did not expand appreciably, according to Waterman. There weren’t the winds to push it. The number of personnel involved jumped to 2,500, an increase of more than 1,000 from Thursday. Fourteen fixed-wing air-tankers bombed the eastern flank of the fire (along Gibraltar Road) with retardant. Fifteen helicopters attacked the western front (along Highway 154) with water. And CalFire deployed a former passenger jet-a converted DC-10-that holds 12,000 gallons of retardant along the Gibraltar Ridge as well as Camino Cielo to the north. (Camino Cielo is strategically important because it offers a defensible ridgeline to keep the fire from spilling down the backside of the mountains facing the Santa Ynez Valley. In addition, Camino Cielo is significant to the security of region’s telecommunication infrastructure. No less than 240 telecom transmission lines run along Camino Cielo.)

DC-10s evoke a certain degree of controversy among firefighters. On one hand, they’re too big, heavy, and clumsy to navigate the sudden dips and rises of the Santa Barbara landscape. They’re also extremely expensive, costing a $41,000 a day deposit plus an hourly fee of $5,500. Because of their size, DC-10s leave such a wake in the air they pass through that it’s not safe for smaller planes to fly in the same airspace before allowing the turbulence to settle down.

But DC-10s also can hold five times more retardant than the next biggest air tanker, and because of this they can “paint” a much longer and broader line. And for a population in high anxiety, these planes are reassuring in the extreme. After three major fires within the past 10 months, Santa Barbarans have good reason to be more than a little anxious about wildfires.

While Friday’s press conference was more a rah-rah fest in which pubic safety officials praised one another and the general public for their cooperative spirit, some nuggets did emerge. As of Friday, more than 30,000 people had been ordered to evacuate their homes, a figure roughly one-third the City of Santa Barbara’s total population.

On just Friday, the Sheriff’s Department sent out 100,00 Reverse 911 calls notifying people that they either had to evacuate or that they should get ready to do so soon. And it turned out that three of the politicos who stand silently behind the speaker’s podium in solidarity with the firefighting efforts had been ordered to evacuate from their homes-State Assemblymember Pedro Nava, County Supervisor Janet Wolf, and Santa Barbara City Councilmember Grant House. In addition, Pat McElroy, a battalion chief with the city Fire Department, not only had to evacuate, but last night, he had to save his own house in San Roque from going up in flames as embers from the inferno rained down on his roof. He was helped in this regard by a strike crew from the Pasadena Fire Department.

At the end of the day, it’s what happens at night that seems to matter most with the Jesusita Fire. If the cool temperatures prevail and the winds lay low, firefighters will have a good night and the community can breathe a much needed sigh of relief. Saturday morning, the weather forecasters predict a significant shift in weather patterns with lower temperatures on the horizon and mild ocean breezes. But if the Sundowner winds that were predicted make another late appearance, howling down the mountains, the South Coast will experience yet another sleepless night.


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