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Firefighters take advantage of calm winds, continue to combat Sherpa fire

Firefighters take advantage of calm winds, continue to combat Sherpa fire

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Crews fighting the Sherpa fire along the Gaviota coast are taking advantage of calm winds and continuing to suppress the flames, which have burned more than 7,600 acres.

As of Saturday evening, the fire was at 45-percent containment. Since winds did not pick up as anticipated Friday night, firefighters were able to focus on the eastern area before winds and temperatures continue picking up through the weekend.

"We were fortunate that winds didn't surface last night, but they are predicted again (Saturday night) with increased temperatures throughout the day," said Capt. Dave Zaniboni of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. 

The Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management issued a red flag warning Saturday afternoon, in effect from 5 p.m. Sunday to 10 a.m. Tuesday, for gusty sundowner winds, high temperatures and low humidity on the South Coast.

Firefighters still are working on building and reinforcing containment lines along the north and east sides of the Sherpa fire and along Highway 101. Crews will continue with contingency lines on the east side of the fire. 

Highways were currently open and winds were calm into Saturday night, but crews are anticipating wind speeds and temperatures to spike, according to Mike Eliason, public information officer of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

"The firefighters are hitting the eastern side of the fire hard from the aircrafts," said Eliason. "East is our focus, but the west side is looking pretty good as of now." 

Eliason said the National Incident Management Team is managing the situation, and firefighters now have more resources to fight the flames. 

No serious injuries were reported Friday night, except for two minor laceration injuries to firefighters. No additional structures were lost, and the amount of firefighting equipment and personnel count remains the same, at 1,230 crew members. 

Crews will continue working with aircraft, making fire retardant and water drops. 

The biggest challenge firefighters will face is establishing containment perimeters working from the top of the fire at Refugio Canyon and west of Camino Cielo while the temperature climbs, Eliason said.

"We have to secure perimeters and containment lines while the winds are in our favor," Eliason said. "Basically, the predicted sundowner winds didn't happen (Friday night), but it doesn't mean it won't happen later." 

Although the lack of sundowners are giving fighters a small window of opportunity, meteorologist Robbie Munroe of the National Weather Service said Refugio Canyon will be expecting a significant warming trend throughout the weekend, with high temperatures rising into the mid-90s Sunday. 

"The extreme heat wave isn't helping, and it's only getting hotter as we head into Monday, with triple-digit heat temperatures, right around 100 degrees or so in the county," Munroe said. 

The hottest temperatures are expected to be throughout Santa Ynez, which could be up to about 105 degrees by Monday, and triple-digit temperatures will be widespread in the interior and valley locations. 

Munroe added, "We also have high-pressure air building into the regions, so we'll have hotter temperatures with extremely low humidity, especially daytime."

"The dry conditions will only make things worse, and the dry terrain will be more susceptible to burning faster. Because it's been so dry for the early part of the summer, that's going to be another factor for the fire." 

More winds are expected to continue and strengthen throughout the weekend as well, and the weather service is primarily focusing their watch on the fire locations, Munroe said. 

"We're expecting similar and possibly stronger gusty wind conditions into Monday at Refugio Canyon, possibly even up to 50 miles per hour," he added.

Fire activity along Highway 101 is under continuous evaluation by fire managers and the California Highway Patrol. Officials say the highway may be closed again if the fire is determined to be a hazard to motorists. 

Communities surrounding the Sherpa fire can expect to see smoke throughout the day, which will increase during the evening hours. It is advised that outdoor activities should be planned for times when smoke levels are low. 

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. 

Evacuation warnings are in place for areas east of El Capitan Canyon to Farren Road; Las Llagas Canyon, Gato Canyon, Las Varas Canyon, Dos Pueblos Canyon and Eagle Canyon. 

The Sherpa fire began Wednesday afternoon at about 3:15 p.m. The cause of the fire remains unknown. 

Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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