From my perch near Timber Peak on Sunday night I could see the La Brea flames creating a thunderous column of smoke as it worked its way toward the Sierra Madre crest. “It’s already over the ridge,” one fire fighter said but it turned out he was wrong.
Last Monday night, despite the efforts of engine crews to backfire along the ridge, the fire jumped the Sierra Madres about five miles east of my position and began to work its way down into Moon Canyon. It turns out that the heaviest pressure on the ridgetop was quite a bit further to the east. In response, Los Padres Forest officials began closing down portions of the ranchland on the Cuyama side of the Sierra Madres, a mandatory order that will affect some 14 ranch owners as well as the La Brea Canyon area.
Despite the rapidity in which the fire increased in size, jumping from 1300 hundred acres to more than 15 times that size in just 48 hours, the La Brea Fire is still primarily a wilderness fire that is consuming acres mostly along the upper slopes of the sun facing side of the Sierra Madres. The heaviest pressure the crews are facing are along the Sierra Madre ridge but despite this
Overlaying the fire perimeter maps from Sunday and Monday night, the fire appears to be expanding south a bit and has turned east from the Cuchadas Camp area and jumped over the ridge into Horse Canyon. However, to the north it doesn’t appear the fire is making a major push to the east, which is good news at this point.
On the west side of the fire, flames that I could see burning up out of the South Fork of La Brea Canyon on Sunday night have crossed over into Kerry Canyon and there is a potential for the fire to continue moving towards Treplett Peak. The good news is that fire crews do have more access to establishing a perimeter on this side of the fire than along the south or east sides.
What everyone has on the mind is how long this one will last, how big will it get and how much will it cost (both in property, dollars and possibly lives). It is not a difficult stretch to think that the La Brea Fire could be one of the county’s “Big Ten” – chewing up 50,000 acres or more before it is out.
Here’s the good news. The fire is currently working its way through thick brush last torched in a 1922 fire that burned 114,728 acres. So there’s good reason why the fire has exploded like it has the past few days. The worst, however, could be behind us once this 80-90 year-old fuel is gone. Across the Sierra Madres immediately in the path of where the fire is heading is the footprint of the 22,000 acre Spanish Fire that burned in 1999. In fuel terms, this is still pretty young brush and will help slow down the fire.
Then there’s the bad. Along the southeastern flank, the fire is bumping up against the 1966 Wellman Fire boundary. A close look at this area in the map above shows that La Brea fire is moving across and into wilderness territory that hasn’t burned in 43 years. There’s almost 45,000 acres of brush located east of the current fire perimeter that could be almost impossible for fire fighters to do anything about given the nature of the country.
“Another Zaca,” a hot shot from the Casitas Pass Fire Station commented as his glance swept over the smoke-filled skies. Perhaps, to an extent. If the La Brea Fire were to follow the flanks of the Sierra Madres up the Sisquoc like the Zaca did up the Manzana two summers ago, there’s ten miles and as much as another 50,000 acres that could go up in smoke.
This time fire fighters are holding a better hand of cards. The Zaca Fire burned out most everything to the south and further to the east so eventually it’ll burn itself out if it heads in that direction.
The key in the next few days will be in establishing a perimeter around the Moon Canyon slopover and in holding the Sierra Madre Ridge, which fire fighters should be able to do. If that scenario works itself out then the only real question is how much of the hillsides in the Sisquoc drainage will burn before the fire is contained.