Alisal Fire Sunday Morning: 78 Percent Contained, 17,253 Acres Burned

Refugio Evacuation Order Remains, but Hollister Ranch and Gaviota Warnings Canceled

Arroyo Hondo Preserve, purchased from the Hollister family by the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County in 2001, was hit hard by the Alisal Fire. | Credit: John Warner

The Alisal Fire has eased back and, as of Sunday morning, is 78 percent contained. On Saturday afternoon, pockets of fire erupted into giant plumes of smoke as the winds aligned with unburned patches within the canyons. During the last 24 hours, 1,655 firefighters from around the state have been on the Alisal scene. Many are focused on keeping the containment lines solid, while others are working to hold the most active section — the western flank closest to the Gaviota Pass. A constant assault by aircraft, combined with firebreaks dug by hand crews and dozer drivers, successfully controlled the fire advancing. By Saturday night, the fire had consumed a total of 17,253 acres — an increase of 53 acres from the day before. This was a much smaller amount than when the fire began a week ago, seeming to leap from the mountaintops to the ocean within minutes. 

John Warner, one of the managers for the Arroyo Hondo Preserve, which is about 30 miles up the highway from Santa Barbara and right below the fire start zone, recalled, “The first night, the fire burned from Alisal straight to the ocean. I could see it from our driveway heading down the hills through the landfill and into the box canyon in front of it.” Warner evacuated for a couple of days before returning to a burned-out landscape. The firefighters had rescued a number of important sites: the house, barn, orchard, and the picnic area, as well as the remnants of an historic adobe.

“They saved our brand-new stream sign, which we had just finished putting in last week,” Warner said with relief. “It’s hand-painted and shows hundreds of things in and around the creek that people can identify as a learning tool.” 

The black containment line for Alisal Fire grew to 78 percent by Sunday morning. | Credit: Courtesy CIIMT

He sighed with weariness before going on to recount the 20 interpretive-station signs that had burned, specially installed so kids and families could take themselves on a safe tour during the pandemic. The rocky creek was visible now because all the undergrowth had burned away, but the mature sycamores, alders, and cottonwoods that had their feet in the water looked like they would survive, he said.

“Trees are down, leaning over roads; rocks are sliding,” he described. The solar-panel system that pumped Arroyo Hondo’s well was destroyed, but the solar installer came out right away with the parts to reestablish the system, which had been funded by a grant. The well supplies a 12,000-gallon set of tanks, which the firefighters used to replenish their water pumpers.

Fire marched up to the hand-painted “Life in a Stream” sign at Arroyo Hondo Preserve but was stopped by firefighters on the scene. | Credit: John Warner

Needless to say, Arroyo Hondo is closed until the trails and trees can be made safe. On Friday night, despite the burned-out scene, a smoky flare-up erupted out of the blue, Warner said. “Hondo means ‘deep and narrow,’” he added. “The canyon goes to the top of the mountains, and it can be very dangerous if we get a lot of rain at once. I hope the rains are gentle this year.”

The campgrounds at the state beaches nearby are closed until October 24 — Gaviota, Refugio, and El Capitán — as the firefighters are using them for housing, access, and staging. Fire trucks are frequently on Highway 101, and motorists are asked to be careful as they drive through Gaviota.

The evacuation warning for Hollister Ranch and areas west of the fire was canceled on Saturday evening. With the exception of Arroyo Quemada Lane, the evacuation order for the Refugio area remains in place. As many as 878 people were affected by the evacuation order and warnings.

Areas of the black containment line at the top of the mountains caught fire yesterday, quickly handled by engine crews stationed along West Camino Cielo, the incident commanders reported. The weather patterns were shifting from blowing off the ocean to blowing down from the ridge, and back again, and humidity levels were varying with the winds, usually recovering at night. An injury reported earlier was an input mistake, and among the usual fire cautions, they were testing for COVID-19 though nearly all personnel were vaccinated.

Monday was on their minds with forecasters predicting another dry cold front bringing strong winds out of the north and northwest. The incident cost to date is reportedly $13 million.

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