Santa Barbara woke up to overcast skies and cool temperatures this morning, a good sign for firefighters. “Today is about change,” Incident Meteorologist Rob Balfour told firefighters at the morning briefing. “We have a coastal eddy offshore that will keep the weather cool below 2,500 feet today.”
However, Balfour cautioned that this change also brings with it the potential for onshore breezes that could push the fire in the upper canyons toward the crest. “Right now the humidity below 1,600 feet is 85 percent,” he said, “but it’s closer to 18 percent up on top and it will be much hotter up there as well.”
The cooler temperatures will have one very positive benefit for local community members who were evacuated from their homes over the past several days. Fire officials are planning on lifting the mandatory evacuation order below Highway 192 sometime this morning and may do so above the highway on a case-by-case basis as well.
This does not mean the danger has passed. There have been reports of a few additional structure losses in the burn area as coals ignite them. Firefighters in this area, called Branch II, were cautioned to be extremely vigilant and make sure to hammer anything that starts smoking. “Let’s make sure we’ve got everything out in this area today,” they were told.
Yesterday’s focus was on keeping the fire from crossing the Windy Gap fuel break on the west end of the fire, below East Camino Cielo and west of Gibraltar Road. However, in the later afternoon the fire moved across the Windy Gap ridgeline and Highway 154 and established itself in Maria Ygnacio Creek. By early evening cooler temperatures and heavy amounts of water dropped by the helicopters had cooled the fire down, but not before the front had almost reached Old San Marcos Pass Road near the double set of switchbacks just below the Trout Club.
Today, this area will be the No. 1 priority for the fire crews as a flare up could threaten not only the Trout Club but Painted Cave as well. Fire officials expect that the cooler temperatures will help keep this area cool. “There is still a lot to do on this west end,” one of the commanders told the assembled crowd.
Along the crest, firefighters could have their hands full, too, if the upslope winds predicted do occur. Not only will it be hotter on top but the humidity will be much lower as well. However, yesterday the fixed-wing aircraft, including the DC-10 made numerous runs along the crest, dropping close to 100,000 gallons of retardant. This provided the crews with sufficient cover to backfire off the crest in several areas.
In addition, bulldozers were active in numerous locations, cutting line toward the already burned areas to allow the hand crews to go direct on the fire, meaning that they will be able to cut additional line around parts of the fire near the intersection of Gibraltar and East Camino Cielo. As a result of all these efforts, crews were able to extend the amount of fire line contained from 10 percent to 30 percent. Cost of the fire has now increased to $4.3 million. More than 4,000 personnel are now on scene, including 499 engines and 101 crews – a number far greater than were utilized during the 2007 Zaca Fire.
On the east end of the fire line, flames continued to push into Cold Springs Canyon. On Thursday night, the fire had crossed Gibraltar Road along a mile-wide stretch from the West Fork trailhead to a point just south of Flores Flats. For most of yesterday, flames continued to burn along the road near the climbing area and over the top of a large knoll overlooking Flores Flats. It appears the fire is now firmly established in the upper part of Cold Springs Canyon. Fire commanders called this the No. 2 priority for today and will devote considerable resources toward keeping the fire from working its way down toward Montecito. As part of this effort, dozers are moving toward Romero Road and will re-blade the old dirt road from Romero Saddle down to Bella Vista Drive.
Though encouraged by the change in conditions, firefighters are still concerned. “We got a lot of work done yesterday,” one of the incident commanders said, “but we’re not out of the woods yet.”
Success today may be all about the weather.