With 50 mph gusting sundowners forecast for Thursday night, more than 800 firefighters are battling the Scherpa Fire, a wildfire that started Wednesday at around 3:15 p.m. near the top of Refugio Canyon on a property known as Rancho La Scherpa. As of Thursday afternoon, the wind-driven blaze had spread rapidly south and east down Refugio and Las Flores canyons, driving residents from their homes, forcing the evacuation of thousands camped at Refugio and El Capitan state beaches and nearby private campgrounds, and threatening Exxon’s Las Flores oil facilities.
Authorities with Los Padres National Forest — the incident’s lead firefighting agency — and Santa Barbara County Fire Department have not reported any injuries. Some 60 structures in Refugio Canyon are threatened, but none have been damaged. Eighty homes in El Capitan Canyon are threatened by sundowner winds. The fire’s cause is under investigation.
At a press conference at 11 a.m. on Thursday at Dos Pueblos High School — also a launching point for municipal, CAL FIRE, Hotshot, and state prison crews — County Fire Chief Eric Peterson called the blaze “a significant and challenging fire with fuels that haven’t burned in more than 70 years.” The coastal canyons are steep, rugged, and covered with chaparral desiccated by years of critical drought and no significant rainfall in months.
As of Thursday afternoon the fire had scorched 1,250 acres between Refugio Road and Las Flores Canyon, a Wednesday-night flare-up forcing the temporary closure of Highway 101 in both directions until early Thursday morning. Petersen said the fire is at zero containment.
“It’s getting bigger as we speak,” Petersen added. “We are all putting in tremendous effort to keep this fire in its box. All that can be done at this point is being done.”
Mandatory evacuations remain for Refugio, Venadito, El Capitan, and Las Flores canyons. Evacuation warnings have been issued for the area from Gato Canyon to Farren Road. A shelter has been opened at the Wake Center, located at 300 North Turnpike Road; another, at Santa Ynez Union High School, located at 2975 East Highway 246, will reopen if needed. Eighty-three horses, mostly from Circle Bar B Ranch, were shuttled to Earl Warren Showgrounds.
The fire started at approximately 3:15 p.m. Wednesday and within two hours, as the prevailing northwesterlies gusted to 20 mph, grew to 20 acres, according to Andrew Madsen, a spokesperson for Los Padres National Forest. At that point, 10 fire engines, three helicopters, two dozers, and multiple water tenders were at the scene, as well as two 20-person hand crews, according to Madsen. Firefighters from Los Padres, Santa Barbara County, Santa Barbara City, Montecito, Summerland/Carpinteria, Vandenberg Air Force Base, and the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians were fighting the blaze as door-to-door evacuations were being ordered for Refugio and Las Flores canyons.
By around 7 p.m., the fire had burned approximately 150 acres in the area of Rancho La Scherpa, at 2540 Refugio Road, the same site where the Refugio Fire originated in 1955, and was heading down-canyon as roughly 250 personnel, a dozen water-toting helicopters, and a handful of air tankers and smaller aircraft fought the flames.
As nightfall approached crews were “attack[ing] this thing from the air as fast and as aggressively as possible,” said Captain Dave Zaniboni, a county spokesperson. “We are concerned [with] sundowner winds.” As the CHP shut down Highway 101 in both directions, Zaniboni noted that between 9 p.m. and midnight, the winds stoked the out-of-control wildfire, pushing it toward the oil refinery in Las Flores Canyon.
The defensible space surrounding the oil refinery “paid off,” said Chief Peterson, as crews were able to thwart the blaze as it ravaged the canyon southward to within about 20 yards of Highway 101. Cooler temperatures and calmer winds slowed the fire’s pace as the personnel headcount topped 500 and air attacks resumed with the morning light and continuing throughout the day.
However, anxiety levels are climbing again. The forecast calls for another night of gusting sundowners for the Refugio area, and temperatures are expecting to soar this weekend across the greater American Southwest. By 5 p.m., 21 hand crews — assisted by 61 engines, 30 aircraft, four dozers, and two water tenders — were being sent to battle fires throwing off two large smoke columns and moving east.
Currently, the Scherpa Fire’s western edge is at Refugio Road, and its eastern edge is Las Flores Canyon. Forest Service officials said the goal is to keep the blaze north of Highway 101, south of West Camino Cielo, west of Gato Canyon, and east of Tajiguas Canyon. Low-lying smoke has stopped aircraft from taking an accurate acreage estimate.