Late Wednesday night, emergency operations managers expanded Santa Barbara County’s evacuation orders as the Alisal Fire expanded its footprint. Evacuation orders now include all areas west of Arroyo Hondo to the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 101. Included in that are Vista del Mar School, Gaviota Beach, Refugio Canyon, and all areas between El Capitán Beach on the coast to West Camino Cielo up the mountains.
Evacuation warnings now include all properties within the Hollister Ranch area. Still in effect are prior warnings for the area east of El Capitán Beach to Dos Pueblos Canyon Road from the coast to West Camino Cielo up the mountains.
The good news for the 1,306 firefighters now struggling to wrap their arms around the sprawling fire, which is now estimated to have encompassed 16,801 acres of coastal chaparral and grasslands and remains at 5 percent containment, is that the winds have calmed down for the moment, thus allowing the nine helicopters and six fixed-wing aircraft to dump their retardant loads in hard-to-get ravines and other forbidding terrain. Translated into urban freak-out terms, the fire front is now 15 miles away from Goleta; that eastern edge of the fire also happens to be where the winds have calmed down the most. It’s also where a major effort is now underway in terms of structure defense, aerial bombardment, and cutting protective lines.
By contrast, winds remain much friskier on the western slope of the fire, which is pushing both east and west simultaneously. While there are not many structures on the western flank of the fire, there are vital infrastructure interests of significant concern, not the least of which is Broadcast Peak, where much of the South Coast’s vital communications infrastructure is massed. According to Captain Daniel Bertucelli with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the fire has danced around the edges of Broadcast Peak, coming close at the southern edges.
Today’s relative calm provides those fighting the fire a relatively ideal time to try to make serious progress before Santa Ana winds, expected to show up in the next couple of days, arrive. According to Eric Boldt with the National Weather Service, the Santa Anas will make the terrain both hotter and drier. It will also increase anticipated wind velocities. While Boldt said the anticipated conditions are not expected to trigger red-flag-alert warning, Bertucelli said it very well could. Winds are now gusting at about 17 miles an hour; under the anticipated Santa Anas, Boldt said wind gusts could hit the mid-30s. Right now, Boldt said ambient temperatures are hovering in the mid-70s. With the Santa Anas, he said, the mercury should jump by at least eight degrees into the mid-80s.
Likewise, ambient conditions will get significantly drier. Currently, for example, the relative humidity on the ridgetops is 25 percent, and down by the freeway, it’s closer to 40-50 percent. With the Santa Anas, Boldt said, it could drop to 25 percent. Even at night, he said, the relative humidity is not expected to recover as fully as it normally does with the arrival of the Santa Anas.
The Santa Anas, Boldt said, are expected to dominate the weather profile for about two days. After that, he said, he expects conditions to revert. About a week from now, he said, there’s a slight chance of some light precipitation. As hugely helpful as that might be, he cautioned that the chances are slim.
Smoke and ash from the Alisal fire have triggered an air quality alert for all of Santa Barbara County. With winds blowing upslope from offshore, the South Coast will be experiencing the full brunt of the fire’s smoke load. Much of it prior has been blown offshore and out to sea.
A number of structures have been reported damaged in Refugio Canyon, but the damage assessment team has yet to document how many and at what property value. One firefighter was injured two days ago in a chainsaw accident. He was taken to Cottage Hospital, treated, and released.
In addition to Broadcast Peak, Bertucelli expressed concern about critical infrastructure in Tajiguas Canyon, the county’s new-and-improved landfill operations — $150 million worth of new investments — being just one. In addition, he cited an oil refinery. The safety of ExxonMobil’s facility at Las Flores Canyon has been the subject of significant concern in days past with the flames; more than 125 firefighters were stationed there in response. “I drove through yesterday, and it was fine,” said Bertucelli.
In the meantime, he said, the main objective for today would be to focus on the northern and eastern boundaries of the fire, while creating some indirect lines of the westside to protect the critical infrastructure.
For the latest updates on the fire, see readysbc.org/alisal-fire.
Find all our updates on the Alisal Fire here.