Backfires are lit in Refugio Canyon to burn up fuel.
Ray Ford

Independent outdoors editor Ray Ford reports that firefighters are concentrating their efforts on the eastern edge of the Scherpa Fire, trying to prevent it from spilling over the ridge of Las Flores Canyon and into El Capitan Canyon. Inaccessible by foot, the line is being held by air tankers dropping loads of retardant. Fire teams are also actively lighting backfires by hand in Refugio Canyon about a third of a mile below Circle Bar B Ranch to stop its progress west. (For reference, the affected canyons, from west to east, are: Refugio, Venadito, Las Flores, and El Capitan.)

Ford spoke Thursday morning with Battalion Chief Chris Mailes with the City of Santa Barbara Fire Department.

Mailes and his crew are part of a brush engine strike team stationed in Venadito Canyon. They were initially called in at around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday when the fire was still up near Refugio Pass and burning 20-30 acres. Mailes said there were “mixed winds” on the blaze and it was “hanging out in bowls at the top of the canyon.”

Commanders, however, knew sundowner winds were on the way, so they ordered a “really aggressive response” with multiple tankers laying lines of retardant around the edge of the fire and helicopters dropping water directly on the flames. By 7 p.m., the sundowners kicked up and began pushing the fire south toward the ocean and Highway 101. Within 20 minutes it was racing down the hill, said Mailes.

A number of ranches suffered close calls, but no buildings have burned. Mailes talked about firefighters surrounding a nearby 1866 ranch house and successfully guarding it throughout the night. Many canyon residents have done an “incredible job” creating defensible spaces around their homes, he said. He called Southern California firefighters “some of the best in the world.”

Thursday is considered “a transition day” for the fire teams, Mailes went on. The evening will likely bring more sundowners, followed by hotter and drier conditions on Friday and through the weekend. Near record conditions are expected Saturday and Sunday. Commanders are most concerned about the 35 mph ridge-top winds forecasted for tonight that could push the fire into neighboring canyons.

Beyond the direct attacks, dozer teams and hand crews are cutting new contingency lines and rebuilding old ones. “We’re pessimists,” said Mailes of firefighters. “We plan for the worst and hope for the best.” CAL FIRE will soon dispatch its Type 2 teams, the second strongest force in the state agency. The incident will then shift from local to state command, Mailes said.


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