Thursday, July 3, 2008

Winds continue to stoke Gap Fire


Flames dotted the hills above Goleta for a third evening in a row as the Gap Fire grew well beyond 2,400 acres, the latest figure available, in an explosion fueled by heavy brush and stiff sundowner winds.
The fire moved largely to the east and inched to the south, County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow said, raising concerns that flames could make serious headway down canyons toward Goleta and prompting a slew of new evacuation orders.
“We’re being cautious,” Capt. Iskow said. “...For safety’s sake, we’re getting ahead of the curve.”

At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, authorities issued a mandatory evacuation for areas north of the Patterson Avenue curve between Fairview and Patterson avenues as flames continued to creep in a southeasterly direction.
Capt. Iskow said winds were expected to continue into the early morning, potentially pushing the fire to the base of the hills and east to Highway 154.
As the fire crossed portions of West Camino Cielo to the north, authorities issued an evacuation order for residents along the roadway, including those on Kinevan Road and the Haney Tract.
Fire officials later upgraded an evacuation warning to a mandatory evacuation for the communities of Hidden Valley and the Trout Club at approximately 6:30 p.m.
Firefighters had initially hoped to hold flames south of the winding roadway, County Dep. Fire Chief Tom Franklin said during a news conference earlier in the day.
He said once the fire crossed West Camino Cielo, “We’ve got a new ballgame in our hands,” noting the exposed northern slope of the range offers a host of additional problems.
Canyon areas north of Goleta remain under evacuation orders and hundreds of residences are threatened, fire officials said. Containment is estimated at 5 percent.
A silver lining exists on the southern front of the fire above Goleta, Chief Franklin said, where lemon and avocado orchards are providing a fuel break of sorts for firefighters.
Crews have been finding anchor spots and improving fire lines in that area, he said. Structure protection crews remain in place around ranch homes closest to the flames.
As law enforcement officers closed down North San Marcos Road on Thursday evening, officials reported barricades blowing over in heavy winds and requested sandbags.
Although sundowner winds are expected to continue pushing the fire downhill and to the east for the next few days, largely in the afternoon and evening hours, authorities said moisture is expected to sweep through the area by Sunday, raising relative humidity levels.
“The bad news with that moisture coming in is there is a little bit of wind associated with it,” Chief Franklin said.
Power lines to the west of the Gap Fire remained a high concern for authorities as smoke threatened to trigger a widespread outage similar to one that knocked out electricity to at least 81,000 South Coast residents Wednesday evening.
Chief Franklin said despite flames passing under power lines on Wednesday, areas still remained unburned and could create heavy smoke that disrupts transmission lines.
“We’re not out of the woods,” he said. “This thing could still burn under those lines and we could have a repeat of the power outage.”
As the evening wore on, smoke started affecting the heavy transmission lines, initially causing momentary interruptions that lasted only several seconds.
“It’s kind of like if a tree branch were to make contact with our wire and then clear contact right away,” said Rudy Gonzalez, a spokesman for Southern California Edison.
He said the momentary blips are sporadic and hard to predict.
“A lot of it’s out of our control now,” he said.
Even as he spoke, authorities could be heard over emergency radio transmissions stating that power had gone out at the intersection of Hollister Avenue and Turnpike Road, affecting San Marcos High School, which is serving as an evacuation shelter.
Public information officers at the Los Padres National Forest call center in Goleta also lost power, fire spokesman John Ahlman said, speaking by cell phone.
Authorities confirmed that approximately 40,000 customers had lost electricity and had no estimate as to when workers would be able to restore power.
County leaders proclaimed a local state of emergency late Wednesday evening and unanimously ratified it during a special meeting Thursday, hoping to leverage state and federal resources.
Their efforts appeared to work as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency as well, noting the fire’s proximity to homes and describing “conditions of extreme peril.”
“We have responded immediately to the Gap Fire by sending additional resources to Santa Barbara County to battle this blaze that is threatening life and property,” Gov. Schwarzenegger said in a prepared statement. “California has the best firefighters in the world, and I also want to commend them for their dedication under such difficult circumstances.”
As many officials have in recent days, the governor reiterated that resources that have been stretched to the breaking point due to numerous wildfires burning across the state.
As of Thursday afternoon, however, the Gap Fire was the No. 1 priority in the state, fire officials said.
“We’re at the top of the heap,” Chief Franklin said.
Being first in line for aerial support resources is particularly crucial.
“Aircraft on this fire is our biggest ally,” he said, adding that the air response has been solid since the fire started on Tuesday afternoon.
Top priority fires are not determined solely by size, Chief Franklin explained, but largely by danger to life and property. Fire officials also frequently pour heavy resources into small fires in hopes of keeping them small, he added.
Even with more firefighters and equipment flooding in from other areas, he cautioned the public against becoming complacent.
During an update to the Board of Supervisors, Chief Franklin described how a resident near the fire had rode up on his bicycle and asked if he should start getting his things together to evacuate.
“The time to prepare to evacuate is not when the fire is in your backyard,” he said. “It’s now.”
Goleta Mayor Michael Bennett said flames had advanced within a mile of city limits during a press conference early Thursday afternoon and also urged residents to be wary.
“Be prepared,” he said. “I can’t emphasize that enough.”
He also asked motorists and residents who don’t live in the vicinity of the fire to avoid Cathedral Oaks Road. Sightseers are strongly discouraged from approaching the evacuation areas.
“We need to have clear access for all fire apparatus and the families that need to evacuate,” Mayor Bennett said.
Authorities also urged members of the public not living in an evacuation area to call 211 for general information about the fire, rather than 961-5770. Los Padres National Forest District Ranger Cindy Chojnacky said the Goleta information center has been overwhelmed by calls and asked that those lines remain clear for residents in immediate danger and media representatives.
In other fire-related news, health officials upgraded a precautionary advisory set on Wednesday to a full-blown air quality advisory that remains in effect through the weekend due to large amounts of smoke and ash in the air above Goleta.
Those with heart or lung disease, as well as older adults and children, should limit time outdoors and contact health providers if experiencing any smoke-related symptoms.
Assemblymember Pedro Nava, in town to tour the emergency command center at Earl Warren Showgrounds and the Red Cross evacuation shelter at San Marcos High School, also announced plans to put together disaster relief legislation for victims of the fire.
“Property owners should not be penalized when a natural disaster strikes,” he said in a news release.
Similar to legislation passed last year when wildfires ravaged Southern California, Nava’s relief measure will allow for property tax exemptions and tax deductions for losses incurred during the Gap Fire.
Beginning on Monday, students attending summer school at Dos Pueblos High School will be relocated for at least two weeks to La Colina Junior High School, at 4025 Foothill Rd., school officials said. Santa Barbara MTD will still provide transit service and routes are available at

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