June 19, 2024
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Sherpa Fire 89 percent contained as firefighters gain upper hand


Firefighters battle the Sherpa fire in Santa Barbara County.

Firefighters battle the Sherpa fire in Santa Barbara County.

Updated at 1:15 p.m. June 22:

The Sherpa Fire is 89 percent contained, according to an incident report updated by fire officials at 1:07 p.m. June 22.

Updated at 9:40 a.m.  June 21:

The Sherpa Fire is now 70 percent contained, according to an incident report updated by fire officials at 8:16 a.m. June 21. There are now 2,178 firefighting personnel battling the blaze, which has grown to 7,969 acres.

Updated 6:35 p.m. June 20:

Santa Barbara County Officials downgraded mantatory evacuation orders caused by the Sherpa Fire to evacuation warnings at 5:15 p.m. June 20.

The downgrading of evacuation orders is the latest sign firefighters are getting a better handle on the blaze, which continues to burn in areas about six miles northwest of Goleta. The mandatory evacuation orders will be lifted at 5 a.m. June 22, but only landowners, residents and any laborers they employ will be allowed into areas near Venadito Canyon and Canada de la Destiladera.

Refugio State Beach will reopen June 25, but El Capitan State Beach, where a small water treatment plant burned down June 17, will remain closed until at least July 15, officials also said in a news release.

Updated at 1 p.m. June 20:

Despite strong winds and hot temperatures, firefighters made progress battling the Sherpa Fire June 19.

Firefighters now have the Sherpa fire 54 percent contained, according to the latest press release issued by Santa Barbara County officials. There are currently 1,926 firefighting personnel battling the 7,893-acre blaze.

Hotter than average temperatures and extremely low humidity make conditions perfect for the fire to spread, officials cautioned. Firefighters are now using an aggressive strategy involving 18 firefighting helicopters, four air tankers and a DC-10 to contain and extinguish the Sherpa Fire.

On June 18, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary ban on drones over areas affected by the Sherpa Fire. The perimeter is a 5-by-3-mile area that includes parts of Goleta north of Calle Real and west of Los Carneros Road.

There is a lot of air traffic coming in from various areas (for the Sherpa Fire),” said Brian Sexton, forest aviation officer with the Los Padres National Forest, in a news release. “Drones should abide by the same FAA rules and avoid the airspace to ensure firefighters can safely do their job.”

Southern California Edison also reported 19 customers near El Capitan Canyon are without power because power poles and lines were downed from the fire. Power is expected to be restored by June 21.

Updated at noon June 20:

Firefighters now have the Sherpa fire 54 percent contained, according to the latest incident report by fire officials at 7:38 a.m. June 20. There are currently 1,926 firefighting personnel battling the 7,893-acre blaze.

Updated at 10:15 p.m. June 19:

Firefighters continued to gain control of the Sherpa fire with good progress securing the western flank June 19. The 7,893-acre blaze was 51 percent contained as of the latest incident report by officials at 9:53 p.m.

Updated at 12 a.m. June 19:

The Sherpa fire grew to 7,811 acres on June 18 but firefighters had it 45 percent contained as of 10:54 p.m.

There are now 1,900 firefighters battling the blaze with containment expected by June 23, according to fire officials.

Updated at 12:15 p.m. June 28:

Fire officials asked West Goleta residents to be ready to evacuate because of the Sherpa Fire if needed June 18, but said the fire is still 5 to 6 miles from Goleta and firefighters are gaining control.

Officials said at a news conference they caught a break overnight as strong sun downer winds did not blow in mountain valleys. While the fire grew from 5,866 acres to 7,063 acres, firefighters also said the blaze is now 24 percent contained and they have a better handle on it.
Officials stressed that they do not expect Goleta residents will need to evacuate, but strong winds are again predicted overnight, which could spread the fire further.
Additional reports of damage to avocado, lemon and olive groves as well as cattle grazing land have been minimal because firefighters have been communicating well with farmers and ranchers, said Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner Cathy Fisher.
“We have not received any new requests for assistance at this time,” Fisher said.
Only one minor injury of a firefighter has been reported and there have been no civilian injuries reported. The water treatment plant at El Capitan State Beach which burned down June 17  is the only structure to be destroyed by the blazer thus far.
Scott Jalbert, head of CalFire’s San Luis Obispo office, said the continuing drought is leading to more fires this year.
“Over 30,000 acres have burned since January. That’s triple what occurred last year during the same time. As the summer progresses, so will these fires.”
• Contact Philip Joens at pjoens@pacbiztimes.com. I’m 

Updated at 11 a.m. June 18:

The Sherpa fire grew to 7,063 acres overnight but firefighters now have it 24 percent contained after sundowner winds did not surface as expected.

Mandatory evacuation orders remain in effect for Refugio Canyon, Venadito Canyon, Las Flores Canyon, El Capitan Canyon, El Capitan State Beach, El Capitan Ranch, and Canada de la Destiladera; and the area east of the Refugio burn area up to Calle Lippizana, near the equestrian center.

Updated at 8:45 p.m. June 17:

A water treatment plant at El Capitan State Beach burned down overnight and the Sherpa fire grew to 5,866 acres June 17, threatening crops, homes and an oil and gas processing facility.

The blaze was only 5 percent contained as of the morning of June 17. Santa Barbara County officials declared a state of emergency at 10:10 a.m. June 17 because of ongoing evacuations and the threat the fire still poses to crop land, homes and ExxonMobil’s Las Flores Canyon oil and gas processing facility.

Officials have started an investigation into the cause of the fire, but it is not a criminal investigation, they said at a news conference.

“While the size of the fire more than doubled in size in the last 24 hours, there’s been only minor structural loss and no civilian or firefighter injuries,” said Eric Peterson, Santa Barbara County’s fire chief.

Officials said mandatory evacuations are in place in some areas affected by the fire. There has been substantial damage to avocado, lemon and olive crops as well as cattle grazing land.

“That assessment of the damage is underway right now,” said Doreen Farr, Santa Barbara County 3rd District supervisor. “Due to the continued evacuations in place, the very real potential for additional evacuations, also the potential for further damage to agriculture and natural resources, the need for a local emergency is necessary.”

Agriculture is a $1.8 billion industry in Santa Barbara County. Cathy Fisher, the Santa Barbara County agricultural commissioner, said that as of 10:30 a.m., she had received reports of damage to farmland in the Venadito Canyon and Refugio Canyon areas.

“We’re in the process of working with our commodity groups and gathering statistics and information about the value of those losses so far,” Fisher said.

About 100 horses had also been evacuated to the Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara because of the fire.

Robert Lewin, an emergency manager with Santa Barbara County, said impacts on the economy after last summer’s Refugio oil spill are a major concern.

“We need to do the best we can to get this fire out as soon as we can so we can make sure that tourism’s needs are addressed,” Lewin said. “It’s a major industry in the county.”

Eric Hjelstrom, a California State Parks superintendent that monitors parks around Santa Barbara including El Capitan and Refugio state beaches, said the small water treatment plant burned down sometime overnight. The plant provides drinking and bathing water for campers at El Capitan State Beach.

On June 16, officials canceled reservations at El Capitan State Beach through June 24 because of safety concerns.

“We can’t open Refugio until the evacuation order is lifted,” Hjelstrom said.

Both parks are currently full of fire equipment.

“Once the evacuation order is lifted and it’s safe to bring people back in, we’ll evaluate our situation,” Hjelstrom said. “The parks on this coast are loved almost to death and the people who have been going there have been going there for generations.”

Hjelstrom said the fire will have a big impact on park attendance.

“There’s a ton of people who have reservations who had reservations at this time last year canceled at this time last year,” he said. “When you manage parks, canceling reservations is not something you take lightly.”

Highway 101 is open to traffic after being closed from 8 p.m. June 16 to 4 a.m. June 17, but closures are expected as the sun sets and night time winds called “sun downers” kick up, said Lt. Steve Larson of the Santa Barbara office of the California Highway Patrol. Larson said he chased people off the road as fire tornadoes bore down on the area June 16.

“The 101 is open. The bad news is, we’ve closed it now twice in the last two nights,” Larson said. “There’s probably going to be more closures. All of our decisions have been based on public safety.”

National Weather Service meteorologist Eric Boldt said a heat wave is expected to start June 18 and continue through at least June 20 with temperatures between 90 and 100 degrees in the mountains. By June 21, temperatures are expected to cool off slightly, but still be above average.

As firefighters make progress during the day, they could be hampered by 40 to 50 mph winds expected each night — typical for this time of year.

Two large DC-10 firefighting planes are now flying in and out of the Santa Maria Airport to help battle the blaze, according to Robert Baird, supervisor of the Los Padres National Forrest. Six large air tankers and 13 helicopters are also being flown out of the Santa Maria Airport. Aviators also have access to unique night water-dropping planes from the forest service and Kern County.

Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, where the news conference was held, has become a staging area for about 1,230 local, state and federal firefighters battling the blaze. Dozens of lime green federal fire trucks and bright red state fire trucks could be seen parked at the school.

A few dozen federal firefighters even pitched tents on a baseball field at the high school as they came in from outside the region to fight the flames.

Baird said the parks went into fire restrictions June 13 and he begged the public to be careful to not start another fire.

“The last thing we need is for another wildfire to start from some careless action from the public,” Baird said.

Boldt said a large fire this early in the fire season is concerning. Given the prolonged drought, Boldt said, he and fire officials are worried that the fire season may not end by winter. In late December, officials also fought a bad blaze that briefly closed Highway 101.

“When you get a heat wave and some wind on top of it, you’re just drying it even more,” Boldt said. “Most of our lowest moisture conditions are not until the fall when we’ll get some of our bigger wind events, so this is a really early to start this. So we have basically the same potential right through the fall because those are our hottest months.”

Mark Tautrim and his wife Susie own a 300-acre cattle and horse ranch at 12750 Calle Real in Gaviota, where they also run a dog boarding business — Sam’s Doggy Dude Ranch, which neighbors the ExxonMobil facility.

Mark Tautrim spent the last two-or-so days bulldozing brush and weeds to stop the fire in its path. Tautrim said he, along with firefighters, helped save his son’s house, which is a few miles from the ranch.

Part of his property burned, but it was just land, he said.

Tautrim shipped all of his horses to Earl Warren Showgrounds and sent the dogs to Dioji K-9 Resort & Athletic Club in Goleta. Skies were blue overhead at his ranch, but about 200 yards toward Goleta it was “browner than brown,” Tautrim told the Business Times.

“It was really hairy last night when the fire went across El Capitan Ranch,” Tautrim said.

• Contact Philip Joens at pjoens@pacbiztimes.com. Staff Writer Alex Kacik contributed to this report.