Crews deploy fixed-wing tankers to fight the blaze on day three
By ANNELISE HANSHAW
and MADISON HIRNEISEN
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITERS
The Alisal Fire grew to more than 16,800 acres by Thursday morning as more than 1,300 firefighters continued to battle the multi-day blaze.
Containment remained at 5% as of Thursday morning.
On Thursday morning, evacuation orders were issued for Refugio Canyon, Hollister Ranch and Arroyo Hondo Preserve.
Highway 101 remained closed Thursday morning in the areas affected by the fire.
On Wednesday, officials launched an aerial attack on the fire Wednesday, deploying fixed-wing aircraft to spray flame retardant to slow the forward progress of the blaze. Since the fire started on Monday, responders were unable to deploy fixed-wing tankers due to heavy winds in the area, though crews utilized helicopters to deploy water drops on Tuesday.
Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Daniel Bertucelli told the News-Press that the inability to use aircraft has a “significant impact” on the ability to contain a fire.
“We utilize air resources all the time, and they work in conjunction with ground resources,” Capt. Bertucelli said. “It’s a coordinated effort, so it’s been a significant issue. But now as the wind is hopefully continuing to diminish, we’re going to be able to get all those aircraft up in the air and start knocking it down.”
The fire, which began Monday afternoon near Alisal Lake, was very “wind-driven” in its first few days, Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig told reporters Wednesday.
The chief explained that officials expect to see some “seesawing action” with the fire as it changes direction. He said onshore wind flow would push the fire further into the canyon the next few days, adding that officials were expecting to battle sundowner winds throughout the canyons Wednesday evening.
“That onshore flow will push this well-established fire on these canyons and further into the canyon and infrastructures that, quite frankly, have been protected from a downwind assault,” Chief Hartwig said Wednesday. “That will change when the winds change. And so we’ll see some seesawing action on this fire over the next few days.”
Chief Hartwig added that officials expect to be putting out hotspots from the fire for “weeks, if not months.”
Officials reported that about 120 structures remained threatened by the blaze on Wednesday. According to Capt. Bertucelli, there are reports of three outbuildings destroyed in the Refugio Canyon area and one abandoned residence destroyed on the Gaviota Coast just west of the Tajiguas Landfill.
Chief Hartwig said these reports are not confirmed yet.
Structure defense remains a high priority for crews working the fire, officials said Wednesday. Firefighters are currently providing structure defense for the $150 million Tajiguas Landfill ReSource Center and the structures along Refugio Canyon, El Capitan Ranch and in Camino Cielo, near the Reagan Ranch.
Los Padres National Forest firefighters said although one of the fire’s “fingers” appears to have extended toward ExxonMobil’s inactive Las Flores Canyon facility, it has not yet reached the oil and gas plant.
“We have been closely monitoring the fire,” ExxonMobil spokesperson Julie King told the News-Press in a statement. “ExxonMobil’s primary focus continues to be the safety of our employees and contractors in the area. We are grateful that there were no injuries and no damage to our facilities at Las Flores Canyon.”
As the fire extends into weeklong projections, leaders from the incident team decided a federal team would be best to handle command. The fire’s location on federal land within Los Padres National Forest and state lands in Santa Barbara County complicated the role Los Padres should take.
The Forest Service ordered a Type 1 National Incident Management Team to control operations. The incident management team took control at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Los Padres National Forest Fire Chief Jim Harris said strategy shouldn’t change, but the new team will have “a lot more capacity.” The local team had 12 people in command, and the federal team brought 58 leaders.
“They’ll just be able to service the incident better, more attention to logistics, more attention to the planning, finances — all the things that catch up with me,” he said. Chief Harris has worked with the team on other fires.
As the fire continues to burn along the Gaviota Coast, 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann praised the efforts of first responders, saying that the “very best people, the very best resources anywhere in the country” are working to curtail the flames and protect resources along the Central Coast.
“We all recognize that the Gaviota Coast is really iconic for Santa Barbara County, and for all of California and even the world,” Ms. Hartmann said during a press conference Wednesday. “We have a long legacy here of ranching and farming, we have amazing cultural and natural resources. It’s one of the hotspots in the entire world for biodiversity. So we will resume our stewardship after this fire, and we will bring it back.”
Highway 101 remains closed in both directions from State Route 1 to Cathedral Oaks Road. Crews are working to repair guardrails and reopen the highway.
The Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management has not issued additional evacuation mandates or warnings since 3 p.m. Tuesday.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, though Chief Hartwig said Wednesday that investigators are examining whether last week’s lightning storm could have fanned a flame in the Alisal Lake area.
“We aren’t ruling out the possibility that it was a remnant of the lightning storm that came through and maybe the winds got onto it and it fanned it into something,” Chief Hartwig told the News-Press. He added that officials know the fire originated from a point near Alisal Lake, and investigators are currently on site trying to determine the cause.