Authorities believe the fire started when sparks or fuel from a small wood splitter ignited grass in a vacant lot of Rancho La Scherpa.
Ray Ford

Saturday’s promise of hotter temperatures and the potential for sundowner winds did not fully materialize. Yet on the eastern perimeter, every effort was being made to establish containment line and to continue burning out operations back to the west, eliminating any possibility of the fire racing downhill in the evening and reaching Highway 101.

The major concern is that increased heat and reduced humidity into Sunday will cause the northern part of the fire line to explode uphill towards Santa Ynez Peak and possibly spew cinders east into Las Llagas and Gato canyons. Fortunately, this did not happen Saturday; the temperatures weren’t that bad, the wind was non-existent, and the sundowners didn’t hit until after 7 p.m., providing loads of time to prepare for them.

Dozer and engine crews worked feverishly in these two canyons along with Las Varas Canyon further east in preparation for burning out the brush should sundowner winds bring the fire back down canyon in the evening. On the crest, an aerial assault began with the goal of running a five-mile-long strip of retardant just below the crest, should the fire begin an uphill run. In addition to the tankers, crews also are actively brushing out the dozer lines along Camino Cielo and clearing the perimeter of Santa Ynez and Broadcast peaks to protect the mulit-million dollar electronic equipment housed there.

East Fire Perimeter

A check of the work being done near the head of Las Lagas Canyon shows clear progress both in backfiring back to the west and constructing additional dozer lines to allow more firing if needed. Ironically, while it appears the Scherpa Fire made major gains in the past two days, in actuality much of the acreage burned has been due to the incredible efforts and skill of engine crews from throughout Southern California and as far away as the Sierras who have conducted numerous back firing operations on the fire perimeter.

Fire Cause

On the way up onto East Camino Cielo as several dozen engine crews drove by me near Rancho La Scherpa, I received confirmation from several sources that fire officials believe the Scherpa Fire was started when either sparks or fuel from a small wood splitter ignited grass in a vacant lot on the ranch and winds quickly pushed the flames uphill and east into the upper Refugio Canyon drainage.

While the winds caused the fire to make a run east across the canyon and away from the ranch, a resident who lives in the canyon just above Circle-Bar-B Ranch told me that the wind was so ferocious that it pushed the flames across the upper canyon in minutes, and as a result the canyon community was spared from being destroyed.

Air Show

The most serious concern on Saturday was that, as the heat dials up and the humidity sucks the moisture out of the chaparral brush, the action would grow hot and heavy, with the potential for major runs uphill that could bring the fire to Camino Cielo in numerous places. I reached the crest about 1 p.m. and already the dozer lines had been cut, some of them six blades wide, creating a line that firefighters can use to fire off of and to turn the fire back on itself. One of the spotters driving back and forth along Camino Cielo looking for evidence that the fire may be heading uphill told me that they’ll be ready to burn out if needed.

From above, I spot a number of hot spots, one of which begins to take off, building a column that is a thousand feet high and it appears the fire is readying to attack. But just then several of the huge helicopters — the heavies — rush in and begin dousing the upper edge of the flame. Within minutes the column begins to break up.

Still, all above the upper part of El Capitan Canyon, there are dozens of small flareups but none of them reach the potential of the earlier column. Every indication is that the upper edge of the fire will not threaten the fire fighters stationed on the top of the mountain today but they are taking no chances.

For the rest of the afternoon much of the activity involves the effort to lay down enough retardant that if fire reaches Camino Cielo it will slow down and allow back firing operations to hold the line. It was an incredible experience being up there, watching the tankers do their work. First the spotter plane appears on the horizon and as it dips down and across the hillside it releases a line of smoke, letting the plane behind know exactly where to drop its load.

As the tanker begins to approach the target zone it begins what appears like a slow glide down. Then at just the point where it appears it will stall out, the engines begin to hit full throttle with a ferocious roar and the plane begins a steep ascent as it opens the bay that will spew out its gooey, red liquid. With the wind blowing slightly downhill the retardant is released slightly uphill of the target zone, allowing it to drift downhill right where they want it to go. Amazing work!

Sundowners Begin

At 7 p.m. as I began to head down the road, I passed eight more engine crews heading up for the night. The sundowner wind were just starting to ramp up when I reached Refugio Pass. By the time I reach a nice view spot locals call Twin Oaks, it is ferocious and the heat increasing — in the low 60s on top but near the freeway the temperature is over 80 degrees.

Not too far away, dozens more engines, several dozers, and quite a few firefighters were massing near Refugio Beach should anything come up. Driving along Highway 101 back to town, I see similar numbers of engine crews at El Capitan and Las Llagas canyons also ready if needed.

The firefighters stood ready for what the night holds.

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