As the sun fell Saturday, Santa Barbarans continued to face a skyline dominated by giant clouds of swirling fire, ash, and smoke generated by the Rey Fire, now in its third day. These gigantic plumes of smoke appear closer than they are, county fire officials stressed, and they came from firefighters’ burnout effort along the southwestern edge to prevent it from spreading.

Despite the impressive visual, Santa Barbara Fire spokesperson Mike Eliason added, these pyrocumulus clouds are common. Contrary to abundant fears from South Coast residents — and on social media — there are no new fires. The blaze is “well away from Front County,” he said. It is at least a mile from the Santa Ynez River. Still, for county officials, the phones have been ringing off the hooks.

Rey Fire, Saturday, August 20, 2016
Ray Ford

The current acreage count rose to 13,224 acres, with 10 percent containment. “These types of fires generate their own weather,” Eliason said, explaining hot air rises, then cools, and sinks down, creating “tremendous down draft winds.” That in turn generates considerable turbulence preventing aircraft from flying in the area.

The fire, fueled by high temperatures, moderate winds and some of the driest brush Santa Barbara’s backcountry has seen in decades, has grown significantly despite efforts by 550 firefighters, at least four helicopters, a giant DC-10 air tanker, and numerous fixed wing aircraft to control it. There have been no new injuries.

Firefighters — led by a unified command structure of multiple agencies including the Los Padres National Forest Service, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, and Cal Fire — have been focusing their efforts on fortifying the northeastern edge of the fire.

Rey Fire, Saturday, August 20, 2016
Ray Ford

Asked about adequate resources given the several wildfires scorching the state, Eliason said “we’re in good shape” but “our crews are getting tired.” A number of the firefighters on scene are from the state’s inmate program.

The nighttime hours see good conditions for battling fires — low temperatures, increased humidity, and decreased winds. Yet, the fire is marching at a very determined rate right now, Eliason said.

“There is no longer a fire season,” he said. “We’re in the fifth year of this drought.” In his 31 years closely observing fires, Elaison said he can’t “underestimate enough how dramatic and impressive these are moving.”


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