Monday, July 7, 2008

Evacuees return home, officials warn of heat wave


Cooler weather kept the Gap Fire relatively inactive on Monday as firefighters cleaned up containment lines along populated fronts and started moving west to tackle the last raging frontier of the 9,600-acre blaze.
Temperatures are expected to rise on Tuesday, authorities said, likely leading to increased fire activity to the northwest that will be increasingly visual to residents.

Nearly 1,300 personnel joined seven helicopters, six air tankers and 10 bulldozers to battle the blaze on Monday, fire officials said. However, due to improved firelines near populated areas, authorities started lifting mandatory evacuations and warnings.
County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow called containment along the southern and eastern edges a major victory for the South Coast.
“This is great news — people are back home,” he said.
In the same breath, however, he warned that flames could jump West Camino Cielo, cross firelines or double back, noting that areas next to the eastern perimeter are still choked with 50-year-old vegetation.
“We cannot be complacent,” he said. “We’re in Central California. We’re in the heat of fire season. We could have another fire in a moment.”
Fire crews headed west to concentrate efforts on flames burning out of control in that region and started to improve structure protection around a scattering of canyon homes.
Characterizing the western flank as the next approaching threat, Capt. Iskow said steep slopes and changing winds are expected to make life more difficult for firefighters. Nonetheless, he said morale is high.
“Attitudes are good,” he said. “People have worked hard. Every firefighter in the state is working to the max.”
Flames have destroyed only a few outbuildings and a mobile home despite threatening thousands of homes, authorities said, a testament to the firefighting efforts during the past week.
During a news conference Monday afternoon, authorities got word that an evacuation warning for the Goleta Valley area north of Cathedral Oaks from Winchester Canyon to Highway 154 had been lifted, allowing thousands to return home.
While evacuation orders still remain in place for West Camino Cielo, Windemere Ranch, Haney Tract, Kinevan Road, Trout Club and Hidden Valley, officials said only 251 homes are in immediate danger.
Residents in Painted Cave and areas west of Winchester Canyon including Eagle Canyon, Tecolote Canyon, Santa Barbara Ranch and Dos Pueblos Ranch are under warnings.
With flames still burning close to heavy power lines feeding the South Coast area, authorities said intermittent outages remain a strong possibility.
“We are still exposing our lines until this fire is out,” Capt. Iskow said. “We still could have outages. You can almost expect it.”
Urging residents to prepare and conserve power, Southern California Edison spokeswoman Jane Brown said the areas most likely to be affected by future outages are northern Santa Barbara, Goleta, Isla Vista and Gaviota. Outages remain possible from Carpinteria to Gaviota.
Crews are working around the clock and others are on standby to deal with outages, Brown said. Approximately 48,000 customers lost electricity on Sunday from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m.
Officers are still maintaining road closures along Highway 154 at Kinevan Road and West Camino Cielo, Sheriff’s officials said. No arrests have been made for looting or vandalism in evacuated areas, and authorities are continuing to patrol those regions as preventative measures.
Sheriff’s officials also noted that more than 7,000 people have submitted cell phone numbers to be added to the reverse 911 system. Those living in affected zip codes received priority.
Health officials downgraded the air quality advisory for Santa Barbara County to a precautionary advisory on Monday. Although air quality has improved, authorities said, smoke and ash from the fire may still affect areas of the county.
The advisory will be in effect throughout the week unless conditions change. Children, older adults and those suffering from respiratory ailments should limit time outdoors.

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