Santa Barbara woke up Tuesday to a hazy sky and falling ash as the Cave Fire continued to rage well above the foothills in the Los Padres National Forest.
But help was on the way as rainstorm was expected to move into the area late Tuesday, with a 100 percent chance by early today and showers continuing later in the morning, according to the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
Meanwhile, the western edge of the mandatory evacuation zone, which had extended as far as Fairview Avenue, was pulled back mid-Tuesday to Patterson Avenue. Evacuation orders remained in effect for areas north of Foothill and Cathedral Oaks roads from Patterson to Ontare Road.
Monday’s evacuation orders initially affected 5,481 residents, but 4,000 were able to return home when the evacuation area was pulled back to Patterson, officials said.
State Route 154 remains closed between State Route 246 in Santa Ynez and the intersection of 154 and Foothill Road in Santa Barbara.
The wind-driven vegetation fire broke out at about 4:15 p.m. Monday in the Painted Cave area along State Route 154, expanding in a few hours to more than 3,100 acres and forcing thousands to evacuate their homes. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
The fire grew to 50 acres in its first hour, but soon after exploded to 2,500 acres as winds drove it down canyons to the west, moving through vegetation that hadn’t burned in 29 years..
In just a few hours, the Cave Fire had shot down the 154, jumping the highway near Windy Gap and causing spot fires to break out in such locations like San Antonio Creek Road, where structures had flames bumping right against them, said Capt. Bertucelli of the Santa Barbara Fire Department.
The location has been referred to as a “nightmare” area, and officials have been worried about a vegetation fire there ever since the devastating Painted Cave Fire of 1990.
Santa Barbara is at the end of the dry season and is being hit by extreme offshore wind events. The burn area has not seen rain for 180 days, according to fire officials.
And the topography of the area has proved difficult for firefighters, as erratic winds pushed the fire back and forth up and down the mountains.
“The Cave Fire is burning under some of the toughest conditions anywhere in the world,” said Chief Jimmy Harris of the U.S. Forest Service.
The rate of spread slowed as winds subsided Tuesday morning. As of 3:30 pm Tuesday, the Cave Fire had burned an estimated 4,330 acres and was 10% contained, officials said. At the time, humidity was relatively low, near 15%, but was expected to improve as the night went on. Wind was expected to reach gusts of 40 mph through Tuesday night.
No injuries have been reported and only one outbuilding has been destroyed, Capt. Bertucelli said.
As of Tuesday night, the area below the burn scar was the primary concern for emergency personnel.
Some 600 firefighters from county agencies across the South Coast, along with strike teams from San Luis Obispo, Ventura, and Los Angeles counties, have responded. Nine helicopters, five bulldozers, and 10 fixed-wing aircraft, including a massive DC-10 air tanker, provided support Tuesday, dowsing the area with water and fire retardant.
Tuesday’s operations were an “airshow”, said Capt. Bertucelli.
“We had crews in place up on the Camino, but it was just a real big aerial operation. We had helicopters and tankers trying to put as much water and retardent around the burning component of this fire as possible,” he said.
Scott Jalber, unit chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said, “We’re all working very well together. Unfortunately we’ve gotten really good at this working together on these fires, especially at the end of the year.”
Santa Barbara City College closed its campuses Tuesday and today. UCSB also cancelled classes for the rest of the week.
On Tuesday morning, an Air Quality Warning was issued for Santa Barbara County by the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department and the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District.
“Smoke and ash from the Cave Fire is affecting local air quality, and conditions may continue over the next several days. Levels of smoke and particles, and areas impacted, will vary and conditions could change quickly,” read the department’s press release.
N-95 particulate masks were being distributed by Direct Relief at locations across the city, including their headquarters at 6100 Wallace Becknell Road; La Casa Del la Raza, 601 E Montecito St.; Unity Shoppe, 1209 State St. and 1401 Chapala St.;, and Santa Barbara Central Library, 40 E. Anapamu St.
Rainfall was expected in the area of the Cave Fire by 1 a.m. today and steady rain between 3 and 6 a.m., with expected rates of around 0.7 inches per hour, according to Eric Boldt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. Heavy downpours may develop this afternoon and similar weather patterns are expected through Thanksgiving.
Debris flows are possible if rainfall reaches rates of 0.7 inches per hour, he said.
“That’s something we will monitor late tonight and first thing in the morning,” Mr. Boldt said Tuesday afternoon.
Due to potential for debris flows, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department issued an evacuation warning Tuesday evening for the following areas: the area between Patterson Avenue/Anderson Lane and Ontare Road; between the 3500 and 3300 block of State Street and down to Las Positas Road; and south of East Camino Cielo to the ocean.
“If you feel uncomfortable or unsafe at any time, do not wait, leave the area and move outside the Fire Evacuation Order and Debris Flow Evacuation Warning area,” read an alert issued by authorities. “If you live near creeks and streams, be aware that waterways may experience high flows and can rise quickly. Flooding impacts may be experienced throughout the county, but are a higher risk and may be observed below the Thomas, Sherpa, Alamo and Whittier burn areas.”
Fire officials were concerned about the impact showers may have on the burn area, as well as the potential for rock slides along the 154, said Capt. Bertucelli.
Aerial operations would most likely be suspended overnight, as tankers cannot fly at night and the incoming storm would keep night-flying helicopters grounded.
“Hopefully it rains tonight and we don’t need the helicopters. Hopefully mother nature drops all the water and not our helicopters,” Capt. Bertucelli said.
Sandbags are available to the public at Santa Barbara County Flood Control, 4568 County Road, off Calle Real. For additional locations, visit countyofsb.org/pwd/sandbag.sbc.
A Red Cross Evacuation Center has been established at Goleta Valley Community Center, 5679 Hollister Road. Residents can also contact the Santa Barbara County emergency call center at 833-688–5551.
Small animals can be taken to Goleta Animal Shelter at 5473 Overpass Road. Large animals can be taken to Earl Warren Showgrounds, 3400 Calle Real. For assistance, call 805-681-4332
A live evacuation map is available at readysbc.org.
A fire information call center is staffed and available to answer questions at 833-688-5551. Register at www.ReadySBC.org to receive emergency alerts from Santa Barbara County.