Flying embers caused the Scherpa Fire to double in size overnight.
Ray Ford

One of the first significant casualties of the Scherpa Fire, now burning for 48 hours, was a water treatment plant at the top of El Capitan Canyon. The facility, which provided 100 percent of El Capitan State Beach’s water, was a “total loss,” said State Parks Superintendent Eric Hjelstrom at a Friday morning press conference. “It’s a devastating blow.” The 140-site campground was evacuated shortly after the Scherpa Fire began Wednesday afternoon and remains closed. Hjelstrom said it was booked with reservations through Labor Day, but with the treatment plant gone, park officials are now reassessing the closure timeline.

No homes have been damaged, but a significant amount of agricultural land has burned, including cattle grazing fields, olive groves, and avocado orchards. Captain Dave Zaniboni with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department said that Thursday night embers on the northeast edge of the Scherpa Fire jumped three-quarters of a mile eastward, starting “basically a whole new fire” that burned Cañada del Corral and El Capitan canyons and “accounting for the extra couple thousand acres” of the fire’s current size. Access through the steep, roadless terrain remains a major challenge, said Zaniboni. “Hand crews can drive up Las Flores Canyon, for example, but can they safely hike to the fire? And will they safely be able to get back?”

Paul Ottes took this long exposure shot of the Scherpa Fire from Coal Oil Point. (June 16, 2015)
Paul Otte

County Fire Chief Eric Peterson stated the fire essentially doubled in size over the last 24 hours, and that the drought isn’t helping things. “It’s ominous,” he said.

CHP officials warned of another Highway 101 closure tonight should sundowner winds push the fire south from the mountains toward the ocean. That happened Wednesday and Thursday evening, shutting down both directions of the 101 between Goleta and Buellton. Motorists have been advised to use Highway 154 as an alternate route.

A National Weather Service representative described temperatures as “very warm” and “above normal.” He said winds will likely kick up again around 5 p.m. tonight, with gusts reaching 40-50 mph. A heat wave is predicted to descended on the area Saturday and peak Monday, with temperatures topping 90 degrees along the coast and over 100 inland.

As of Friday afternoon, the Scherpa Fire is estimated to have burned 4,000 acres and is at 5 percent containment, meaning five percent of the entire loop around the blaze is secure, held by cut firebreaks and/or water hoses. A total of 1,230 firefighters are responding, accompanied by a number of air tankers and helicopters. The estimated incident costs to date are $1.5 million, and a unified command of the U.S. Forest Service, CAL FIRE, and Santa Barbara County Fire is overseeing operations.

At 10:10 a.m. Friday morning, the County of Santa Barbara declared a Local Emergency, which frees up all area resources for response and evacuation efforts. The designation also allows Governor Jerry Brown to declare a State of Emergency if the situation worsens.

National Forest Supervisor Bob Baird reminded the public that Los Padres officials implemented Level III fire restrictions this Monday, which prohibits wood and charcoal fires anywhere in Los Padres. Recreational shooting and smoking are also not allowed. “The last thing we need is for another wildfire to start,” said Baird.

Sheriff Bill Brown noted the continuing fluidity of the fire and the danger it poses to Gaviota Coast residents. Evacuation orders remain in effect for Refugio, Venadito, Las Flores, and El Capitan canyons, as well as the Refugio and Ocean Mesa campgrounds. “Things can change and do change very rapidly, and we don’t want anyone to have a false sense of security,” Brown said. “Do not take these evacuation notices lightly.” Over 1,000 campers have been evacuated, and more than 400 reverse 9-1-1 calls have been issued to residents. Some, Brown noted, have refused to leave their homes. They do so at their own peril, he said.

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