Water dropped by a firefighting helicopter creates a rainbow Tuesday morning in Refugio Canyon. | Credit: Erick Madrid

The winds finally dropped below 20-mph gusts at 4 a.m. on Wednesday, allowing six helicopters, six air tankers, and the very large DC-10 to be called out to the Alisal Fire. A number of aircraft were out last night, too, flying in from Paso Robles and Santa Maria. Water and retardant drops from the air are the only ways to reach the deep ravines and rocky canyons of the Gaviota Coast, which features very few roads.

The big news this morning was the assistance granted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will provide federal funding of up to 75 percent of most firefighting costs. The grant approval came less than 24 hours after the County Board of Supervisors declared a local emergency, likely due to the experiences after the Thomas Fire and debris flow, when Montecito residents urged the county to hire a consultant who was expert in FEMA regulations. The Alisal Fire is likely to cost between a half-million and a full million dollars a day, County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said, depending on the resources — like aircraft — called up each day.

About 1,300 firefighters are on structure protection, including a division of more than 100 in Corral Canyon, where the Exxon refinery is located, said Andrew Madsen, spokesperson for Los Padres National Forest. Another division is at Tajiguas Landfill, where the wood chips of the biofilter were smoldering.

Helicopters battle the Alisal Fire at the top of Refugio Canyon. | Credit: Erick Madrid

The fire was most active today up top when it was calm and farther down the canyons when the wind blew, Madsen said. In the Sherpa Fire burn scar, the grasses that have grown back since 2016 were being consumed. He confirmed a trailer had burned near the Circle Bar B/Brown ranch as well as an abandoned outbuilding in upper Refugio Canyon. Venadito Canyon resident Eric Hvolboll reported the Circle Bar B had lost several employee houses and the historic Covarrubias Barn in Corral Canyon had burned.

The Alisal Fire continues to keep Highway 101 shut down, forcing local traffic to take the San Marcos Pass and statewide travelers to use Interstate 5. While that has left the 101 through Goleta fairly empty, a report from a motorist who travels the 154 regularly called the commute “the scariest and worst ever” this morning, as people angrily used their brights, honked their horns, and sped around other drivers on a road known for its winding curves and deadly accidents.

This morning’s 7 a.m. update put the fire at 14,500 acres and 5 percent contained. The fire command center moved to Earl Warren yesterday, and a Type 1 federal team is to take over from the Type 3 incident team of Forest Service, Cal Fire, and County Fire leadership. Taking charge this afternoon will be Incident Commander Jerry McGowan of the U.S. Forest Service.

Find all our updates on the Alisal Fire here

Masses of strike teams assembled at Exxon refinery. | Credit: Eric Hvolboll

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