A firefighter keeps a watchful eye Friday night on flames on a ridgeline near El Capitan Ranch
Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire

On Friday, firefighters on the Scherpa Fire on the Gaviota Coast were aided considerably when the temperatures remained relatively cool and the dreaded sundowner winds did not kick in. For most of the day, the most intense fire activity was limited to the upper El Capitan Creek area and the ridgeline separating El Capitan and Gato canyons. After two days of serious fire activity in Vendito, Corral, Las Flores, and El Capitan canyons, the lack of wind provided a well-needed breather and an opportunity to regroup.

Map of the Scherpa Fire as of Saturday morning.
Ray Ford

While the DC-10 and the other tankers laid down thousands of gallons of retardant on the ridgeline and around a number of homes in Llagas and Las Varas canyons, dozer crews and several dozen engine crews moved a quarter mile east to the west Llagas ridge to protect structures and begin burning out several hundred acres of heavy brush. The goal is to increase the buffer along the eastern part of the fire and prevent the fire from burning down canyon to the highway.

The most critical factor in the expansion of the Sherpa Fire from less than 20 acres to 5,800 acres in just two days had been the appearance of the sundowner winds in the late afternoon and early evenings. Today firefighters were blessed with a day in which there was minimal wind, with most of the smoke drifting straight up and blowing out to the east and west, creating a miles-long layer that made the fire appear more serious than it actually was.

At about 6 p.m., the winds began to pick up along the crest where I was looking down from East Camino Cielo into El Capitan Canyon and for a brief moment it felt like the sundowners were about to start up once again. Fortunately as quickly as the wind had come up, it died down again and with that the possibility we’d have another El Capitan evening situation.

A Critical Saturday

Perhaps a half mile below and 800 feet in elevation down from the crest, I could see flames working their way up one of the steep ridges towards Santa Ynez Peak. Without the sundowner winds to push back like in the last two days, and with high temperatures promised for Saturday and Sunday, the main concern for firefighters is the north and northeast edges of the fire line where the topography is extremely steep and the fire can only be fought from the air. With the potential for sundowner weather to appear once again tonight, there is a serious potential for the fire to reach Camino Cielo and spread east into Gato and Las Varas Canyons.

Potential issues today include the possibility of the fire cresting the Santa Ynez Mountains near Broadcast and Santa Ynez peaks, slopping over onto the north flank of the mountains, being pushed back over further east and expanding the fire further towards the Goleta. The sundowner effects that could also bring the fire back down to Highway 101.

On the plus side, should the fire continue its eastward path, it will run into thousands of acres of lighter brush burned during the 2008 Gap Fire, which may help slow the fire down until the hot weather dissipates. Regardless, the fire that began as a small conflagration near the top of Refugio Pass just three days ago now has the potential to blow out the eastern edge of the fire perimeter and move it closer to homes in the Goleta Valley.


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