BIG GUNS: The venerable DC-10 (above) lays down a containment line of fire retardant high along the steep, chaparral-choked canyons near West Camino Cielo.
Season Opener: A Sherpa Fire Retrospective
How Fast-Acting Crews Struggled with But Ultimately Contained the Blaze
Thursday, June 23, 2016
While authorities continue investigating the cause of the Sherpa Fire, firefighting crews aimed to fully contain the roughly 8,000-acre wildfire on Thursday, June 23, eight days after it started on private property near the top of Refugio Road.
As of noon on June 22, the United States Forest Service — the fire’s lead agency — reported 270 threatened structures, one destroyed structure, and nine injuries, none of them serious and most due to heat-related stress and dehydration. Authorities have lifted mandatory evacuations for Venadito, Destiladera, and Las Flores canyons. Refugio and El Capitan canyons are scheduled to reopen on June 25, along with Refugio State Beach. El Capitan State Beach will remain closed at least through July 15, having lost its water-treatment plant to the blaze.
By Ray Ford
Santa Barbara County firefighters face off against the flames in El Capitan Canyon.
As firefighters achieved 89 percent containment on June 22, ground crews continued to mop up remaining hotspots as personnel and resources shifted their coordinated attack to several new wildfires that have erupted in Southern California since last weekend’s record-breaking heat wave. At its peak, 2,178 personnel were assigned to the Sherpa Fire, including 61 hand crews and 129 engines, 14 bulldozers, 17 helicopters, and 10 airplanes.
By Ray Ford
An airtanker makes a run.
“The mutual aid system [for fighting wildfires] in California is a model for the rest of the country,” said Captain Dave Zaniboni, a public information officer with Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “We test it and put it to practice every year.”
“This is the first game of the season, so to speak,” added Mike Eliason, a County Fire photographer and spokesperson. “And this response has been a testament on how well the system works.”
On June 22, the official estimate on the cost of the firefighting effort had reached $15.8 million.
By Ray Ford
Firefighters back-burn through the drought-parched undergrowth.
The emergency call came in at 3:29 p.m. on June 15, setting into motion County Fire’s standard response for any brush fire during high fire season: four engines, one water tender, two bulldozers, a pair of 12-man hand crews, a battalion chief, one helicopter, two air tankers, and one lead pilot plane to coordinate an air attack. “We get a call for a vegetation fire, and you get all that, immediately,” said Amber Anderson, a fire inspector with the City of Santa Barbara. “No matter what.”
Just after 4 p.m., county crews and a Forest Service response team reached the area known as Rancho La Scherpa. (The official name of the fire was misspelled, without the “c,” but left alone to avoid confusion during response, and will remain as is.) More support was called in, and for several hours before dark that first day, Forest Service pilot Mark Nunez, high above the rest, choreographed an attack troop of eight tankers and four smaller aircraft.
On the ground, mandatory evacuations were called for nearby residents and more than a thousand campers at Refugio and El Capitan state beaches, and two nearby private campgrounds packed up and fled the approaching wall of flames. Dozens of horses from various ranches were trailered to Earl Warren Showgrounds.
Rawls Thompson evacuates the fire with Trigger.