Paul Wellman

[Update: Friday, 9:30 a.m.]: Captain Dave Zaniboni with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department had good news Friday morning. The Gibraltar Fire, which began just before dawn Thursday and prompted a massive response from firefighting agencies all around the South Coast, is 50 percent contained and moving toward full containment.

Evacuation warnings for the Montecito neighborhoods below the fire have been lifted, and the amount of resources thrown at the blaze has been “downsized considerably,” said Zaniboni. Overnight, Unified Command had 50 engines on standby in case the fire — 1/2 mile off East Camino Cielo Road, west of Montecito Peak — jumped its lines and started heading downhill. Though winds gusted strongly through the area, that fortunately didn’t happen, he explained.

Road closures along East Camino Cielo and Gibraltar remain in effect due to equipment in the area. Unified Command has been dissolved, Zaniboni said, and the U.S. Forest Service is now in charge of monitoring and mop-up.

The equipment at the incident site currently includes 10 engines, 4 dozers, 4 water tenders, 4 hand crews, and approximately 250 personnel. Seven helicopters and four air tankers remain on standby.

At the peak of the response, more than a dozen helicopters and air tankers, accompanied by 530 personnel, swept back and forth across the fire, dropping thousands of gallons of retardant at its perimeter.

The size of the Gibraltar Fire has been reduced from 60-70 acres to 50 acres, based on improved intel from air resources and field observers, Zaniboni said. No structures were damaged and no injuries have been reported.

[Update: Thursday, 4:45 p.m.]: As of 3:35 p.m., about 500 firefighters assisted by ten air tankers and eight helicopters managed to get Thursday’s Gibraltar Fire snugly in its cradle, but they have yet to completely strangle the blaze into total asphyxiation. Santa Barbara County Fire spokesperson David Zaniboni stated the fire was ten percent contained, though to the naked eye it would appear out.

Hot spots in the middle, however, continue to smolder, and if this evening’s winds — with gusts up to 50 mph — materialize as feared, those could become problematic in the extreme. Eight helicopters are dropping water on those areas of the fire, while crews with hoses work the perimeter. Fires are considered contained when hand crews gouge five-to-eight-foot-wide lines around the perimeter of the fire area, scraping the earth of any flammable material. Mostly, with the Gibraltar Fire, this consisted of chaparral. The fire was first reported this morning at 5:16 a.m. and crews were on site by 6:09 a.m. Throughout the morning, it grew from 25 to 70 acres.

Earlier this afternoon, four of the air tankers were released. Six remain on standby at the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base should they be needed. Some air tankers were released and six were put on standby when it was determined they’d done all they could do, said Zaniboni. In total, he said, 85,000 gallons of retardant were dropped over the course of the day. Now, the great fears are the wind and the night.

In 2009, the Jesusita Fire sprung back to life after it appeared to all concerned that it had been effectively extinguished. (The Tea Fire the year before was also thought extinguished by a group of young people partying outdoors after they’d urinated on the flames. Their urine proved woefully inadequate.) That history was front and center in the minds of firefighters attending the Gibraltar Fire. With California experiencing the hottest, driest run in recorded history, flying sparks and embers could prove catastrophic.

A ring of fire retardant surrounds the burn site

Unlike previous fires, the Gibraltar Fire started early in the morning, allowing members of Unified Command to contain it and secure resources in unified time. Given the high real estate values laying just ten miles downwind — in Montecito — and that no other fires are raging throughout Southern California, U.S. Forest Service officials got all the air tankers and resources they asked for, and they made a point to ask for a lot. For visual effect, they even secured a massive DC-10 — perhaps more cinematically impressive than it is utilitarian. In addition, Santa Barbara City, County, and Montecito fire department heads met Wednesday in response to anticipated high wind events. All departments were put on alert so that maximum resources could be deployed if needed.

The tankers effectively painted the fire into a corner from which it never jumped. Pilots laid down lines of “paint” around the perimeter of the burn area — bright red chemical fire retardants — and, according to Jim Kunkle, operator of the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base, the lines stopped the fire in its track. Deployed in the effort were firefighters from as many as nine different agencies; at any given time, about half were actively engaged in fire suppression efforts. None have been reported injured. Given the large number of fire personnel, the incident command headquarters were moved from the Montecito Fire Station Number One to the Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara.

Weather reports indicate Santa Barbara will experience winds averaging 15-25 mph this evening, with gusts possibly raging in excess of 50 mph. Such winds could prove sufficiently intense to preclude further use of the air tankers. “We want to make sure this fire is completely out as fast as we can before night comes,” said Zaniboni. “We’re prepared for the worst but hoping for the best.”

[Update: Thursday, 11:20 a.m.]: With tendrils of smoke shooting up from behind Montecito Peak and the smell of smoke still fresh in their nostrils, Montecito residents appear to be taking the Gibraltar Fire with practiced nonchalance. “Zip. Zilch. Nada,” was the way Joe Cole, Montecito resident and Santa Barbara Independent publisher, described the reaction by his fellow residents. “People aren’t doing anything,” he said.

Cole spent the morning at the Montecito Barbers — and later at the gym — where the talk was of football, not the fire and any potential evacuation plans residents might have in mind. “It was all about what kind of season Santa Barbara High School had and how San Marcos would get crushed,” Cole recounted. Claire Gottsdanker, a member of Montecito’s Architectural Board of Review, who lost her home to the Tea Fire seven years ago, spoke with some amusement at the evacuation warning that went out to her fellow Montecito residents. “Evacuate?” she asked. “Some of us would just get in our cars and drive away. After the last fire, we don’t have anything left to put into our cars.”

In the wake of the Tea Fire, Gottsdanker said she and her neighbors created a phone tree. At 5:40 this morning, the phone lines went wild. Gottsdanker took to the hills outside her house to peruse the horizon. Looking out, she said she saw many of her fellow Tea Fire comrades doing exactly the same. Despite a sense of humor that won’t quit — when asked if the fire could have been started by a backwoods pot farmer, Gottsdanker laughed that all Montecito cultivators had already harvested their crops and had the plants hanging out to dry — she highlighted the gravity of the risk. “This is the big one,” she said. “This is what all the planning is about. If the winds start coming down — watch out. If we see the leaves moving the wrong direction — whoosh.”

J’Amy Brown, another high profile and civically active Montecito resident, said she was struck by the wait-and-see calm of most residents. “We’ve seen more than a few fires already,” she said. Brown noted the grief the Montecito Fire Chief took a couple years ago when he jumped the gun on issuing evacuation notices. Still, said Brown, “You don’t ever want to smell smoke in October,” adding, “On a day like today in a year like this year, it could drive through Montecito like a Howitzer.”

There is some good news, said U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Andrew Madsen. “You mention ‘fire’ in the same sentence as ‘Montecito,’ and if you don’t have anything else going on in SoCal, you’ll get pretty much anything you ask for.” Madsen noted that the fire has drawn media inquiries from all over the planet, the furthest coming from France. Madsen cautioned that should winds kick up to more than 35 mph, it would no longer be safe to dispatch the tankers against the Gibraltar Fire.

Neither Madsen nor Montecito Fire Department spokesperson Gerry Ventura could say exactly how far the flames were from Montecito. Nor could any public spokesperson for any of the agencies contacted say from which reservoirs helicopters engaged in the fight were scooping water. Tom Mosby, general manager for the Montecito Water District, said the firefighting effort takes top priority where the much depleted Jamison Lake is concerned. He said the maximum depth at the reservoir is now 30 feet, meaning there’s water there to be scooped if need be.

[Update: Thursday, 10:31 a.m.]: Independent reporter Keith Hamm just received an update from County Fire spokesperson Capt. Dave Zaniboni at the Montecito Fire Station #1 incident command post.

Road closures have been set up at East Camino Cielo from Painted Cave to Gibraltar, and along Mountain Drive at Gibraltar, Zaniboni said. The fire is still burning 60-70 acres, and it took ground crews quite a while to access the area because of rough terrain, he explained. “They can’t get a circle around it by ground, I can tell you that,” Zaniboni said. “It’s treacherous up there.”

Six air tankers and four helicopters are currently on-scene. An additional 10 tankers have been ordered. “Our concern is the predicted winds this afternoon,” Zaniboni said, referencing expected 50 mph gusts. “We’re planning for the worst.” Approximately 4,500 people live in the foothills in the evacuation warning areas below the fire.

According to a map at incident command, If the blaze worked its way down the canyon toward the coast, homes at the top of Hot Springs Road would be right in its path.

According to County Assistant CEO Maus-Nisich, the fire is 8 to 10 miles from a significant number of homes as of about 10:15 a.m. Responders are using water trucks reach some of the more difficult areas. The area above Westmont College — Zone 2 in Montecito’s evacuation plan map – has now been issued an evacuation warning. Zones 3, 4, and 5 still have evacuation warnings in effect.

[Update: Thursday, 9:44 a.m.]: The National Weather Service has issued a wind advisory until 5 a.m. on Friday. Winds between 15-30 mph with gusts of 40-50 mph will continue through late Thursday night. There will likely be a lull in winds this afternoon, the Weather Service said, but then pick up in the evening and shift to a more northeasterly direction. Winds will be strongest through and below passes and canyons.

County assistant CEO Terri Maus-Nisich said the county’s Emergency Operations Center is not fully activated, but an incident command post is set up in Montecito.

More than 10,000 county residents are signed up to receive alerts from notification service Nixle.

The Los Padres National Forest reports the fire is spreading downhill at “moderate rate” in heavy fuels.

[Update: Thursday, 9:41 a.m.]: As of 9:14 a.m., six air tankers had been deployed to the Gibraltar Fire and, wind turbulence not withstanding, retardant drops are now taking place. Earlier in the morning, air turbulence was sufficient that no drops were happening. Given the fire’s proximity to Montecito — with vast real estate values at risk and memories still fresh of the delays plaguing initial response to the Jesusita Fire — great efforts are being made to secure as many tankers as possible and bombard the fire early before shifting winds cause it to grow.

[Update: Thursday, 9:09 a.m.]: As of 8:45 a.m., one air tanker, dispatched from Paso Robles, had dropped about 1,200 gallons of retardant on the Gibraltar Fire, but two other planes — dispatched from the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base — have not yet dropped because of air turbulence. Another tanker, loaded and ready to go, is waiting at the Santa Maria facility for the green light to go.

Directing traffic from a plane in the air is Mark Nunes, aviation director for the U.S. Forest Service. According to Jim Kunkle, the contractor who runs the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base, when wind sheer down the mountains toward the sea creates air turbulence, it’s too dangerous to get close enough to the fire to drop. Kunkle said the two hovering tankers hold a combined capacity of 6,200 gallons of retardant. He said it takes tankers about 15 minutes to fly from Santa Maria to the Gibraltar Fire and anywhere from 4-7 minutes to reload, depending on the capacity of the tanker.

Kunkle said the Forest Service ordered more than 10 tankers. “They’re going after everything they can get,” he said. Kunkle expressed confidence the base is big enough and prepared to handle such volume “seamlessly.” The major hitch, obviously, is dropping the load of retardant on the flames.

Evacuation warning map, as of 10:30 a.m.

[Update: Thursday, 9:02 a.m.]: Ray Ford is on the front line with firefighters and reports that winds are gusting back and forth around 15-20 mph in no specific direction. “But if they turned downhill, it would be a very serious situation,” he said. Temperatures in the hills are quite cool, he said.

Ford relayed from fire commanders that the blaze started in the upper end of Cold Spring Canyon on the west side of Montecito Peak. The fire climbed the hill and has crested slightly into San Ysidro Canyon. “Right now,” said Ford, “there are no major flames. Just smoldering type stuff.”

Situated upwind of the wildfire, the FlameSniffer devices above Mission Canyon did not detect the blaze’s outset, however they have been providing incident commanders with updates on wind speed and direction, according to a company spokesperson.

Small and large animals are being evacuated to the Santa Barbara Humane Society located at 5399 Overpass Road. People can call the service hotline at (805) 681-4332.

[Update: Thursday, 8:23 a.m.]: City of Santa Barbara Fire Chief Pat McElroy said two county helicopters have already been deployed to attack the Gibraltar Fire behind Montecito and that the Santa Maria Air Base “is revved up” to handle a request by the Unified Command team for 5-10 aircraft. “We’re taking this extremely seriously,” said McElroy. “Extremely.”

McElroy expressed optimism that the aircraft would be made available because there were few other fires throughout the state right now to compete for the resources. Yesterday, he said, the county fire chiefs met in anticipation of such an event because winds were expected to gust in excess of 50 mph last night.

The fire is currently taking place on U.S. Forest Service front-country land, but McElroy said Unified Command has already been established involving County Fire, City Fire, Montecito Fire, and the United States Forest Service. McElroy said about 50 firefighters were initially dispatched but that those resources have since expanded. “They’re trying to get access to the fire,” he explained. “This is not a roadside fire. It’s off the road.”

Andrew Madsen, spokesperson for the United States Forest Service, said at 8:10 a.m. the fire had spread to 60-70 acres, and was moving at a moderate rate of speed, pushed by winds averaging 10-15 mph and gusting at 20-to- 25. He said some power lines were potentially challenged as well as some “structures,” but said at this point he didn’t know what those structures were or how far the fire was from them. He said one Forest Service helicopter was en route and two others had been ordered.

Madsen said because there are no other fires in the Southern California region, Unified Command will try to get as many aircraft as it can. “We’ll be putting on an air show,” he said. “That’s for sure.” He said two planes were ready at the Santa Maria tanker base and that others would be flown in from San Bernardino and Fox Field. A recon plane was already in the sky tracking the fire. “We’ll be on this thing all day unless the winds whip up so much that becomes unsafe,” Madsen said.

At the Gibraltar Fire incident command, County Fire's Capt. Dave Zaniboni points to the approximate location of the blaze.
Keith Hamm

[Update: Thursday, 8:15 a.m.]: Montecito Union School and Cold Spring School have been ordered closed for the day. All schools in the Santa Barbara Unified School District remain open.

An incident command post has been established at Montecito Fire Station #1, at 595 San Ysidro Road.

Westmont College officials sent out an emergency alert to all students at 6 a.m. but has not cancelled classes. “We’re not in the evacuation zone,” explained spokesperson Scott Craig. Craig said permission was granted to use the school’s Lovik Field as a landing area for helicopters fighting the blaze.

[Update: Thursday, 8:00 a.m.]: Independent reporter Ray Ford is up along Gibraltar Road and says the column of smoke witnessed earlier in the morning has somewhat dissipated, “which tells me things have died down.” When he first arrived to the scene, Ford said he could see 15- to 20-foot flames in the brush, but those have largely subsided as well.

Winds in the area continue to gust between 15-20 mph. Ford noted there are no roads and power lines at the fire’s starting point in the Los Padres National Forest, so wondered as to its cause. Fire officials have not yet determined what started the blaze.

[Update: Thursday, 7:28 a.m.]: An evacuation warning was issued at 6:44 a.m. Thursday morning for areas north of Highway 192, east of Cold Springs Road, west of West Buena Vista Drive, south of East Camino Cielo. That area corresponds to evacuation zones 3, 4, and 5 in the map below.

According to the county’s Office of Emergency Management, one helicopter, 10 engines, two dozers, two water tenders, and two hand crews have been deployed. People can tune into AM 1610 or go to for updates.

Cal Fire, Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Sheriff’s Office, and California Highway Patrol are also responding.

[Original Report]: Multiple Santa Barbara fire agencies are responding to a brush fire that began just before daybreak on Thursday west of Montecito Peak. Officials say the fire, called the Gibraltar Fire, is currently burning 25 acres and “growing rapidly,” pushed east by 20 mph winds. Humidity is at 63 percent.

Crews are staging at Gibraltar and East Camino Cielo roads in the Montecito foothills to battle the flames, and as of 6:30 a.m., water-dropping helicopters and bulldozer teams have arrived on the scene.

Weather forecasts for later in the day call for sundowner winds out of the north at 15-25 mph. High temperatures in the area are expected to reach 93 degrees.

County Fire crews are being assisted by responders from the Montecito, Carpinteria-Summerland, and Los Padres fire departments.

No homes are currently threatened by the blaze, but officials warn that could change in the coming hours if it keeps moving in the same direction. The fire’s official start time was 5:15 a.m.


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