Sunday, July 6, 2008

Officials express optimism about Gap Fire


Cooler temperatures provided a respite for firefighters tackling the 9,924-acre Gap Fire burning in the hills above Goleta during the weekend, allowing them to aggressively attack the blaze and make serious headway.
Authorities remain cautiously optimistic after crews headed off flames closest to populated areas and started shifting the focus to the western edge still raging out of control.

“This fire wants to move west and it’s in some very rugged, very unsafe territory for firefighters,” Incident Commander Wally Bennett said.
Even as winds off the ocean dropped temperatures to the high 70s, flames up to 40 feet tall spread to the west and northwest on steep slopes. Officials estimated containment at 30 percent.
“We’re just going to take this one bite at a time,” Bennett said. “…Whatever we do, we don’t want to get our firefighters in trouble out there.”
Of particular concern is an impending heat wave expected to hit the state early in the week. Temperatures are forecasted to reach the 90s by Tuesday, weather officials said.
County Deputy Fire Chief Tom Franklin said moisture from the Gulf of Mexico should arrive later this week, which will improve humidity levels but offer a new set of challenges.
“The bad thing with that system is we’re going to get some squirrelly winds,” he said. “That’s bad news for firefighting.”
While tempering their words with wariness, fire authorities praised work done along the southern and eastern flanks.
Chief Franklin credited firefighters in the West Camino Cielo area, as well as those north of the Patterson Avenue curve, with keeping hundreds of homes untouched during the weekend.
“There was some real firefighting that took place there,” he said. “…Many, many, many homes were saved.”
Crews continued to patrol and strengthen lines along West Camino Cielo and the southern perimeter on Sunday, burning out remaining vegetation at times to ensure a solid barrier.
More than 1,240 personnel were on the scene as of Sunday evening. Authorities also had six air tankers on order and 16 helicopters assigned.
With ever-improving black line — a term for controlled fire perimeter — Chief Franklin said crews are shifting their attention to the less-populated western edge.
Scout teams have started looking for areas to establish contingency lines at a distance from the active edge of the fire.
“There’s a great deal to be optimistic about, but we don’t want to pull any punches,” Chief Franklin said.
At least 2,800 homes are still threatened, along with 228 commercial buildings. Four outbuildings have been destroyed.
Evacuation orders remained in place for West Camino Cielo, Kinevan Road, the Haney Tract, Windermere Ranch, the Trout Club, Hidden Valley and Farren Road north of Vereda del Padre.
A series of streets between Fairview Avenue and Poinsettia Way north of Cathedral Oaks Road also remains under a mandatory evacuation. A list of those streets is available at, along with a list of road closures.
Authorities have downgraded many areas previously under mandatory evacuation orders to warning status. Among those regions still under warnings are Painted Cave, Rancho Embarcadero, and areas north of Cathedral Oaks Road between Fairview Avenue and Winchester Canyon.
Fire officials also issued a warning for Eagle Canyon, Dos Pueblos Ranch and Santa Barbara Ranch north of Highway 101 early Sunday morning as flames continued a westerly march.
Those flames caused more interference with the local power supply, impacting heavy transmission lines feeding Goleta and portions of northern Santa Barbara. A Southern California Edison spokeswoman said customers lost power several times starting at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.
Fire officials also requested the power lines be de-energized for a brief period as fire crews battled flames near the high-voltage lines, cutting electricity to approximately 40,000 customers.
Power officials reminded customers to limit on electricity usage and be prepared to go without power as the blaze continues to burn.
Calling the Gap Fire a great concern and top priority, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger paid a visit to the incident command center and an evacuation shelter set up at San Marcos High School on Saturday.
During a speech at the command center, he praised cooperation between various law enforcement and firefighting agencies.
“This is the only way you can get something done, when everyone is coordinated and works together,” he said.
Recognizing the strain on firefighting resources statewide as crews have battled more than 1,700 fires in the past month, Gov. Schwarzenegger said he ordered 400 National Guard troops to be trained in order to relieve firefighters.
“Many of these firefighters have been working 24, 36, 48 hours,” he said, calling their efforts “heroic.”
The shelter he visited, established by the Red Cross, served 70 evacuees on Friday and more than 100 on Thursday — serving at least 500 meals to evacuees, disaster volunteers and emergency responders.
As firefighters continue their battle against flames, investigators are hoping to make headway on nailing down the cause of the fire. Los Padres National Forest District Ranger Cindy Chojnacky said authorities are calling it human-caused, but have yet to determine the circumstances that sparked the blaze.
“We really just don’t know yet if it was intentionally set or accidental,” she said.
Officials established a tip line, at 961-5710, for those who may know more about the cause of the fire. As Chojnacky reiterated, the fire originated near the Lizard’s Mouth hiking area on the afternoon of July 1.
Authorities also established a second call center to field inquiries from the public. Information on the fire can be found at, on Channel 20, and by calling 211 or 681-5195.

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