Environment & Science

Sherpa Fire: Wildfire north of Santa Barbara burns, state of emergency declared

King River Hotshots and Vandenberg Air Force Base firefighters conduct a defensive firing operation off El Capitan Canyon Rd late Thursday night to protect structures in the path of the Sherpa Fire.
King River Hotshots and Vandenberg Air Force Base firefighters conduct a defensive firing operation off El Capitan Canyon Rd late Thursday night to protect structures in the path of the Sherpa Fire.
Stuart Palley for KPCC
King River Hotshots and Vandenberg Air Force Base firefighters conduct a defensive firing operation off El Capitan Canyon Rd late Thursday night to protect structures in the path of the Sherpa Fire.
Fire crews working to reinforce control lines, posted Friday, June 17, 2016.
@LosPadresNF/Twitter
King River Hotshots and Vandenberg Air Force Base firefighters conduct a defensive firing operation off El Capitan Canyon Rd late Thursday night to protect structures in the path of the Sherpa Fire.
The King River Hotshots start a firing operation off El Capitan Canyon Rd late Thursday night while fighting the Sherpa Fire.
Stuart Palley for KPCC
King River Hotshots and Vandenberg Air Force Base firefighters conduct a defensive firing operation off El Capitan Canyon Rd late Thursday night to protect structures in the path of the Sherpa Fire.
King River Hotshots and Vandenberg Air Force Base firefighters conduct a defensive firing operation off El Capitan Canyon Rd late Thursday night to protect structures in the path of the Sherpa Fire.
Stuart Palley for KPCC
King River Hotshots and Vandenberg Air Force Base firefighters conduct a defensive firing operation off El Capitan Canyon Rd late Thursday night to protect structures in the path of the Sherpa Fire.
The King River Hotshots monitor a firing operation as their colleagues on the ridge above conduct the operation, meant to deprive the Sherpa Fire of fuels in El Capitan Canyon.
Stuart Palley
King River Hotshots and Vandenberg Air Force Base firefighters conduct a defensive firing operation off El Capitan Canyon Rd late Thursday night to protect structures in the path of the Sherpa Fire.
Vandenberg Air Force base firefighters help cool down a flare up during a firing operation Thursday night at the Sherpa Fire.
Stuart Palley for KPCC
King River Hotshots and Vandenberg Air Force Base firefighters conduct a defensive firing operation off El Capitan Canyon Rd late Thursday night to protect structures in the path of the Sherpa Fire.
The Sherpa Fire burns late Thursday evening and early Friday morning June 16 and 17, 2016 off El Capitan Canyon Rd near El Capitan and Goleta in Santa Barbara County.
Stuart Palley for KPCC


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[This story was last updated on the morning of Sunday, June 19.]

A wildfire fanned by strong winds and heat continues to burn north of Santa Barbara Sunday. A local state of emergency for Santa Barbara County was declared on Friday.

As of Sunday morning, the Sherpa Fire, has burned just over 7,800 acres and remains 45 percent contained. Despite triple-digit temperatures during the day, a second night of relatively mild sundowner winds has helped firefighters battle the blaze. The fire is expected to be contained on Thursday, June 23.

Hundreds of campers, some homes and a refinery were forced to evacuate Wednesday. No additional evacuations have been ordered but authorities have warned residents in the west end of Goleta to be prepared to evacuate if the fire shifts. Smoke has reduced the air quality in the area, and winds are expected to continue nightly as heat continues to increase into Monday.

Evacuations & Shelters | Traffic | Air quality | Weather | Economic Impact

"We had a very good night last night," Santa Barbara fire chief Eric Peterson said at a press conference on Saturday morning. Fire crews made progress overnight and on Saturday, increasing containment from a mere 5 percent on Friday evening. The eastern edge of the fire continues to be the toughest flank of the fire to control. Although the decreased winds were a boon, higher temperatures and decreasing humidity mean red flag weather conditions, when conditions are ideal for fire combustion and rapid spread.

Fire Tracker: Sherpa Fire in Santa Barbara County

Firefighters have had problems reaching the narrow, brush-choked canyons to attack the flames.

Eric Peterson, fire chief of Santa Barbara County, told AP that crews faced tough terrain.

“We have three sides of that box that we’re working on right now. The difficulty with that fire right now is the east side of it there are very little opportunities to tie it in,” Peterson said.

Evacuations & Shelters

As of Saturday late morning, no additional evacuations have been issued but all current Mandatory Evacuations and Evacuation Warnings remain in place.

Commander Kelly Moore with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office also warned residents in the west end of Goleta to be prepared to evacuate if the winds change. The fire is currently burning five to six miles away from Goleta.

Approximately 270 homes have been threatened, according to incident spokesperson Raj Singh, who praised homeowners: "A lot of homeowners have done their job on defensible space, clearing brush around their homes, which helps our crews."

A water treatment plant at El Capitan State Beach burned Thursday night, a representative of the California State Parks said at a Friday press conference. It supplied water to the El Capitan campground. They added that they expected additional reservation cancellations. Officials were concerned about protecting business and tourism in the area, noting that avocado, lemon and olive groves were affected by the fire, as was some grazing land.

There were 400 phone lines in the fire area contacted with mandatory evacuation orders, according to Santa Barbara County.

Mandatory evacuation orders remained in effect as of Friday afternoon for areas east of the Refugio Fire burn to Calle Lippizana. The affected areas included El Capitan Canyon, El Capitan Ranch, El Capitan State Beach, Refugio State Beach, Refugio Canyon, Venadito Canyon, Las Flores Canyon and Canada de la Destiladera, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. Canada de la Destiladera was newly evacuated since Thursday night.

Other residents were warned to be ready to leave upon receiving an evacuation order in areas east of El Capitan Canyon to Farren Road, including Las Llagas Canyon, Gato Canyon, Las Varas Canyon, Dos Pueblos Canyon and Eagle Canyon.

Sheriff’s officials advised anyone in those areas to take the time to gather important documents and ready family and pets.

American Red Cross is operating a shelter at the Wake Center at 300 N. Turnpike Road. Additional shelters have been placed on standby. They include:

Evacuees with animals can call Santa Barbara County Animal Services at 805–681–4332.

If you are asked to evacuate, KPCC has some tips on what you should take, what you should wear and where you should go.

Traffic

Highway 101 was open Friday morning after twice closing because of the fire, but forest officials warned drivers to be cautious as fire crews continued working along the road.

KPCC’s Sharon McNary was vacationing with friends in the area and heading back from the beach on the 101 just after 8 p.m. when she said the flames jumped the freeway.

“We can see big swirling flames less than 100 yards from us,” McNary told KPCC. “It’s possible there are cars on the freeway that might be getting stuck or burned over. It’s hard to tell.”

Freeways and highways, however, provide a "nice natural break" that helps firefighters, according to Singh. "We're taking advantage of that natural barrier."

Vehicles were stopped in northbound lanes on Highway 101 in front of El Capitan Canyon prior the freeway being closed on Thursday, June 16, 2016.
Vehicles were stopped in northbound lanes on Highway 101 in front of El Capitan Canyon prior the freeway being closed on Thursday, June 16, 2016.
Lt. Brian Olmstead/Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office

McNary said traffic had stopped and cars were pulling over the median to head back toward Santa Barbara.

“I mean, it’s just completely crowded traffic, and you can see active flames on the hills very near us,” she said.

The freeway was reopened early Friday, but officials continued that the road could close again.

"Fire activity along Highway 101 is under continuous evaluation by fire managers and the California Highway Patrol," a Friday most from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group said, adding that the highway may be closed again if it's determined to be a hazard to drivers.​

Train service was also approved to run in the area of the Sherpa Fire, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s office said.

Air quality

The Santa Barbara County Health Department and Air Pollution Control District have issued an Air Quality Warning for the southern areas of Santa Barbara County. Unless conditions change, it'll likely stay in effect through the weekend.

Winds may bring smoke into portions of Los Angeles and Orange counties as well, according to a smoke advisory from the South Coast Air Quality Management District. While the fire is some distance away, air quality could still reach a level of being unhealthy for sensitive groups, according to the advisory.

The Los Angeles Fire Department tweeted earlier in the day that they were receiving multiple reports of people smelling the smoke from the Sherpa Fire in the San Fernando Valley.

Everyone, especially people with heart or lung disease (including asthma), older adults and children, should limit time spent outdoors and avoid outdoor exercise when high concentrations of smoke and particles are in the air. Keep windows and doors in your home closed unless it is extremely hot. If you have an air conditioner, run it with the fresh air intake closed and the filter clean.

A smoke advisory was also issued for Ventura County on Thursday evening because of the elevated smoke levels near Santa Barbara.

The Ventura County Air Pollution Control District said air quality was moderate but warned that Friday is a no burn day.

Weather

Erratic "sundowner" winds have made firefighting more difficult. The National Weather Service said at a Friday press conference that winds Friday night were expected to be similar to Thursday night.

"Gusty sundowner winds are expected each afternoon through early morning this weekend, possibly peaking in intensity Saturday evening," a county release stated.

These winds are local to the Santa Barbara area and are similar to Santa Anas, heating up as they move over the slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains and growing stronger in the evenings.

To make matters worse, a potentially record-setting heat wave — with temperatures topping 100 degrees — is set to hit Southern California this weekend, with significantly higher temperatures and drier weather Sunday and peaking Monday. The National Weather Service doesn't expect cooler temperatures to come in to the area of the fire until Wednesday.

In addition to exacerbating the fires themselves, high temperatures increase firefighter fatigue.

"We're trying to take advantage of the cooler weather right now and do as much work as possible before the heat comes in," Singh told KPCC.

On the bright side, humidity remained mild Friday and was expected to do so through Saturday night before the change in conditions Sunday, according to a release from the county.

Economic Impact

Terri Bowman, managing partner of El Capitan Canyon tells KPCC that all of the yurts, tents and cabins at the 400-acre luxury campground were booked for weekend, with many visitors coming to celebrate Father's Day, but the facility was evacuated on Wednesday afternoon.

"In the short-term, our financial loss is well into the six figures, I’m sure," Bowman says. "But over the course of the summer, I’m confident and hopeful that it’ll be mitigated."

Bowman is grateful that the fire, which ravaged the surrounding hillsides, didn't touch the campground itself. "It’s been a bit surreal because the hillsides around us sometimes have had flames up to 300 feet high but we remained unscathed. We are intact. Our riparian corridor is green and our creek has been spared."

Staff have returned to El Capitan Canyon and it's now being used as a staging ground for firefighters who are battling the Sherpa Fire. 

More than 1,200 firefighters are currently assigned to the fire, according to Raj Singh, spokesperson for the South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team. Several helicopters and air tankers, including one that was working last night, are also part of the effort.

This story has been updated.