The Scherpa Fire edges closer to ExxonMobil's Las Flores oil refinery
Paul Wellman

Like oil spills, out-of-control forest fires in Santa Barbara County are not a question of “if,” but “when.” In the past year, Refugio has now seen both, but the Scherpa Fire is unique in its ability to link the two types of disaster. The chaparral-rich fuel that abounds by Refugio has famously not burned since the epic Refugio Fire of 1955. Back then, however, there was no Santa Ynez Unit oil and gas processing plant located by Las Flores Canyon and owned by ExxonMobil. The Scherpa Fire encroached onto the property the first night of the fire, giving the facility a “bump.”

The flames came up to the industrial plant’s large concrete pads, but never threatened the oil and gas processing facilities themselves. The pads create a substantial setback and were designed back in the 1980s with such fires in mind. They effectively functioned as a moat, keeping the Scherpa’s flames from getting too close.

If the fire returns to the facility—though it is not expected to — the plant has 278,000 barrels of crude oil stored there. That’s down from 425,000 from a few weeks ago, when ExxonMobil began trucking the oil marooned there after last May’s Plains All American pipeline spill. In response to that leak, the federal government shut the pipeline down, stymying the three oil companies that relied upon it to get oil produced off the Santa Barbara coast — and treated at Las Flores Canyon — to market. In addition, some Exxon personnel stayed on site to extinguish any flare-ups, joining forces with county firefighters to repel flames.

With the fire all but totally uncontained and the inevitability of strong gusty winds, any prospective combination of fire and oil is cause for serious concern. “Look, this is a major industrial facility,” said County Energy chief Peter Cantle. “It’s a petroleum treatment plant. It makes things that are flammable and explode. It’s generally a good idea to keep it cool and away from the fire.”

Out of necessity, county officials say, Santa Barbara is better prepared for fire than most places. In fact, just three weeks ago, fire personnel convened a 50-person meeting to discuss evacuation strategies.

Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Fisher said she has received reports thus far of avocado farmland damaged by the blaze. One structure — a shed — was also damaged. When the fire is over, Fisher’s department is responsible for compiling reports on commodities and acres impacted, then submitting the information to federal authorities for disaster relief funds or low interest loans.

The fire has affected a number of farms, including Santa Barbara Natives — headquartered on a private ranch along the Gaviota Coast — and Good Land Organics, located on Farren Road.

Friday afternoon, the county parks department announced campsites are currently available at Cachuma Lake in Santa Ynez; the campground is expected to be fully booked by this weekend. Campsites at El Capitan and Refugio State Beach are shut down; the Jalama Beach campground is at capacity.

Bacara Resort & Spa is offering reduced rates — $150 a night — for any evacuees. A spokesperson for the resort, which is located about nine miles east of the fire, said they are closely monitoring the situation, informing guests about current conditions, and waiving any cancelation fees.

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