Alisal Fire Grows to 13,500 Acres

Fire Across Gaviota Coast Puts Oil Facilities, Homes, Ranches at Risk

Credit: Mike Eliason/S.B. County Fire

Find all our updates on the Alisal Fire here

The fire front for the Alisal Fire stretches across 10 miles of rough Gaviota terrain, riven by canyons and knobby hills of rock, and thick with brush that has been growing for the 66 years that have passed since the Refugio Fire of 1955. Daytime humidity levels of about 15 percent make the chaparral a prime target for the embers flying in the high winds and pushing the flames in all directions through an area that holds horse ranches, avocado orchards, homes, and oil refineries.

In an update Tuesday evening, roughly 700 firefighters were on a fire that had grown to 13,500 acres in size. Containment was inching forward at 5 percent, tweeted Captain Daniel Bertucelli, spokesperson for County Fire. Helicopters were dumping water on the fire on the south side of the mountains, while fixed-wing aircraft were seen working the north side of the blaze. The Alisal Fire not only has a lengthy front but is burning on both sides of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

The mutual aid system has brought to Santa Barbara engine companies and strike teams from Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and Los Angeles counties, state Cal Fire resources, and Forest Service personnel from throughout the state, said Mark Hartwig, Santa Barbara County Fire Chief. All ranks of his firefighters are working the fire, with crews still keeping the fire stations around the county fully staffed. About 15 support personnel are out at California’s other extreme fires.

At the outset of the fire, Hartwig said the command team had mapped the key hazards, “from approximately where it started near the Reagan ranch, to the Tajiguas Landfill — which is just a hop, skip, and jump from West Camino Cielo — to the freeway, the railroad tracks, electric transmission lines, and the oil processing facilities.”

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Tajiguas Landfill had just opened a $150 million anaerobic digester and recycling complex a few months ago, and operators had to call for the fire department mid-morning today when its biofilter caught fire. In addition to the biofilter, which works to filter stinky air from the recycling building through several feet of damp woodchips, the fire roamed over the facility and may have damaged drainage systems, methane collectors, and heavy equipment, said Lael Wageneck, spokesperson for the facility. Indoor and outdoor fire-suppression systems worked to preserve the new Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF, and the digester system. With the highway closed and the facility damage under evaluation, the county’s waste will be sent to Ventura County temporarily, said Wageneck, and the Transfer Station on Dump Road will stay open.

Earlier in the afternoon, the county supervisors held a special session to declare the county to be in a state of emergency, a declaration needed to start emergency funds coming from state and federal authorities since the county could soon be tapped out. Hartwig offered an idea of what the cost of fighting a widespread, multi-day fire could be.

“One of the first trailers to set up at any command post is the finance trailer,” he said, with a small chuckle. That’s in addition to the command, operations, planning, logistics, and even map-making trailers. This fire fight, which looks to have started in Los Padres, is under the command of three agencies: the federal Forest Service, County Fire, and the state responsibility area normally tasked to Cal Fire but under contract to the county.

A huge fire requiring all ground, air, and support resources, like the Dixie Fire in Northern California, can run $2 million a day, said Hartwig. By comparison, the Alisal Fire could be costing about a half-million to a million dollars per day, an amount that quickly exhausts County Fire’s budget and whatever’s left in the county’s emergency fund after COVID.

As for red-alert zones like the landfill or Exxon’s facility at Las Flores, Hartwig felt the firefighters would be able to defend the Exxon refinery, as they had successfully during the Sherpa Fire. Wageneck indicated the fires at the landfill was under control.

Next door in Venadito Canyon, the fire tugged on trees and brush in the gullies and ridges abutting the Exxon facility, said Eric Hvolboll, who was working to protect his family’s La Paloma Ranch. “Thanks the several fire engines and hotshot crews from Nevada who have been here all day and still are,” he texted. Discussing the fate of Las Flores across the eastern ridge, he noted that parts of his canyon were burning a second time after Sherpa.

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