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3:50PM. Northern skies are completely filled with smoke.

Ray Ford

3:50PM. Northern skies are completely filled with smoke.


Zaca Fire heads Towards Wilderness

Last burned in the 1966 Wellman Fire


1:24PM. The large column of smoke signals the fire is heating up.
Click to enlarge photo

Ray Ford

1:24PM. The large column of smoke signals the fire is heating up.

Just after noon today, the Zaca Fire exploded as the fire line crested the Zaca ridge and moved over and down into the Manzana Creek drainage.

This occurred not too long after the morning’s press release from the Forest Service reported that the fire had consumed approximately 1500 acres with 30% containment. Over the next several hours the eastern edge of the fire burned through forty-year-old brush with an intensity not seen since the Wellman Fire of 1966.

From our position at the Figueroa Mountain Lookout, towering clouds of billowing smoke filled the sky and the fire seemed to advance inexorably towards the San Rafael Wilderness despite the constant bombardment by helicopter and fire retardant-laden bombers.

It appears the fire has passed the 5,000 acre mark by now. One bystander remarked he thought it likely it would reach 10,000 acres before being contained. Though the official estimates note that 30% of the fire has been contained, the figures are tentative at the least. Part of the containment line consists of grasslands along Foxen Canyon Road but much of it is represented by the dirt road that snakes its way along the Zaca Ridge.

2:30PM. Within minutes the entire skyline is filled.
Click to enlarge photo

Ray Ford

2:30PM. Within minutes the entire skyline is filled.

Thus far the wind has pushed the fire northeast towards the wilderness. Today, much of the containment efforts seem to be focused on the eastern edge of the fire line both to keep it out of the Zaca Lake drainage and to keep it from crossing back over the ridge and heading back down into the Santa Ynez Valley in the area directly above Neverland Ranch and Midland School. Partly this is also due to the nature of the fire. It is pushing so much flame and smoke towards the wilderness that there is no way either the tankers or helicopters can attack from this direction.

From our perch we could see dozers working at what seemed a snail’s pace along the ridge. It appears they are widening it to make it more difficult for the fire to leap back across it and possibly establish breaks down ridgelines leading down towards the wilderness. The hope here is to prevent the fire from spreading laterally to the east and up the Manzana drainage.

My compadre is Paul Cronshaw, a local high school teacher and avid backpacker. As he scans the eastern edge of the fire in an attempt to see how far down into the Manzana the fire has reached, he worries about the precious pioneer history that may be in danger. This includes Dabney Cabin, Manzana Schoolhouse and the Davis homestead, a part of which is now occupied by world famous sculptor John Cody. These are clearly in danger if the fire continues to head down towards Manzana Creek.

2:59PM. Tankers appear dwarfed by the firestorm but valiantly drop load after load of the fire retardant.
Click to enlarge photo

Ray Ford

2:59PM. Tankers appear dwarfed by the firestorm but valiantly drop load after load of the fire retardant.

Though I’m not sure, the fire appears to have bypassed Zaca Lake. We can spot long streaks of fire retardant laid down on the ridges directly above the lake. While Zaca seems safe, the San Rafael Wilderness may not be so lucky. The steady winds continue at a steady pace of 10-15 miles per hour with gusts to 25MPH and direct the fire’s path in an easterly direction down the brush-choked north slopes of the ridge.

On a scanner held by another spectator I hear word that the fire is spitting out embers and starting fires as far as a quarter mile ahead. Not too long after we see a two-hundred yard wide tangle of chaparral burst into flame well ahead of the fire’s main thrust. The smoke from it spirals upward creating its own firestorm then quickly the towering clouds lean towards the main body of smoke and are swallowed by an even larger thunderhead of smoke. The powerful upward flow of smoke, ash, cinder and burning embers billow thousands of feet into the air. It is both eerie and beautiful.

It appears the wilderness is threatened as the powerful Sikorski helicopters and bombers will be benched soon. Evening approaches and it remains to be seen how much of the wilderness is engulfed. News reporters remind everyone that no structures have been lost, and this may remain to be the case, but there are precious wilderness resources in the path of the Zaca Fire that may be lost should they burn. Let us hope not.




Ray Ford is author of Santa Barbara Wildfires. To read his recollection of the last major fire in the San Rafael Wilderness, the Wellman Fire (1966), you may find it at The Wellman Fire.

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