Highway 101 has reopened in both directions and Amtrak has been approved to run in the area of El Capitan Canyon and Refugio State Beach after flames from the Sherpa fire prompted the closure of both the highway and train service Thursday evening, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department.
Surging overnight, the fire grew from about 1,400 acres to 4,000 acres and one outbuilding was destroyed. It was at five percent containment Friday morning. There are 1,200 fire personnel battling the blaze, according to CalFire.
The Sherpa fire, fanned by sundowner winds, jumped Highway 101 at about 8 p.m. Thursday night, prompting closure of the highway in both directions at El Capitan State Beach.
The fire broke out Wednesday afternoon and prompted mandatory evacuations in nearby canyons. Fanned by wind gusts of up to 40 mph, it had charred 1,200 acres and forced an initial brief closure of Hwy. 101 by 7 a.m. Thursday.
Firefighters took advantage of mild onshore winds and cooler temperatures early Thursday to build a “box” around the perimeter as more than 400 firefighters, 33 engines, 13 handcrews, three helicopters and three large air tankers attacked the flames, said Robert Baird, forest supervisor for Los Padres National Forest.
But by Thursday night sundowner winds had kicked up again and the flames crossed Hwy. 101, prompting closure of the heavily traveled road until further notice between Winchester Canyon Road and Mariposa Reina. The fire had grown to more than 1,700 acres and the smoke plume could be seen from the Five Cities area in San Luis Obispo County. There is no estimated time of containment.
“The fire is 1,200 acres and growing,” Capt. Dave Zaniboni of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department said during an 11 a.m. press conference at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta. “It’s growing as we speak. … And it’s going to grow tonight.”
At 11 a.m. Thursday the fire was burning to the south and slightly east of the Santa Ynez Valley, but Zaniboni said officials were worried the fire’s direction would change as the day wore on.
“The fire is now moving north and east,” he said. “But our worry is this afternoon the sundowner winds will return and it will move back westerly. There’s a lot of fuel there.”
He said firefighters are trying to build a “box” around the fire, with Camino Cielo and Highway 101 as two sides and the other two sides somewhere on the north and south.
“We’re trying to rob it of its fuel and put it out,” Baird said, admitting it could turn out to be a long battle. “There’s a significant possibility it could go a long time,” he said.
The fire started about 3:15 p.m. Wednesday on La Rancha Scherpa off Refugio Road and burned southward, coming within 300 yards of Highway 101 about 11 p.m. and prompting officials to shut down the highway’s southbound lanes at Buellton and the northbound lanes at Winchester Canyon.
As firefighters battled the flames along the freeway just south of Refugio Canyon, southbound motorists were funneled along Highway 246 through Buellton, Solvang and Santa Ynez.
That led to congested traffic through the three communities until Highway 101 was reopened Thursday morning.
However, the California Highway Patrol warned the highway could be closed with little or no notice at any time if the flames march westward again.
As mandatory evacuation orders were issued for the west-facing canyons and both El Capitan and Refugio state beaches, an evacuation center was established at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School.
The center remained on standby Thursday unless needed, officials said, but 41 evacuees stayed at an evacuation shelter set up at the Wake Center on Turnpike Road in Santa Barbara.
Hundreds of people were forced from campgrounds in Los Padres National Forest as the fire raced through dry brush along hillsides. Other areas remained on evacuation alert.
Zaniboni said he didn't have a specific number of people or residences affected. Also closed was Refugio State Beach, which was off-limits for months last year following a major oil spill.
“Everyone from El Capitan to Eagle Road should be prepared to evacuate,” said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.
ExxonMobil, which employs about 250 people at its Las Flores Canyon crude oil processing site, evacuated non-essential employees Wednesday afternoon. Those that remained through the night helped protect it against the flames, company spokesman Todd Spitler said.
Zaniboni said the fire “bumped” the oil facility but no structures were damaged.
"It's in good shape now," Zaniboni said. "There was a lot of fire around it during the night, but the structure protection was effective."
Zaniboni said the fire is burning in “treacherous territory, very steep, with a lot of brush that has not burned in more than 50 years.”
That, coupled with the wind, heat and dry conditions, is making it tough for firefighters.
“This area is notorious for wind-driven fires,” Baird said, noting the Sherpa Fire is burning in the same area as the 1955 Refugio Fire. “We’re studying the behavior of that fire as we try to anticipate the behavior of this fire as much as we can.”
Jim Brown, whose family owns Circle Bar B, a guest ranch located some three miles up Refugio Canyon, went through that 1955 fire.
“We were there during the Refugio Fire after Labor Day in 1955,” Brown said. “Both fires started in the same place. This area is ripe for a big fire. The trees are dying, and there’s a lot of brush.”
He said the Circle Bar B encompasses about 400 acres, and additional ranchland the family owns and leases brings the total to near 1,000 acres.
“I think most of it’s burned,” Brown said early Thursday afternoon. “But I don’t know. I haven’t been back up. We had to evacuate last night. You know, when they evacuate, they let you leave but they don’t let you back in.”
His daughter-in-law Tina Brown, whose husband, Pat, remained behind in the evacuation, said the ranch’s 50 horses were taken early Thursday morning to the Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara, where Equine Evacuation had staged horse trailers.
“Some of the cowboys from the Circle Bar B drove six to eight trailers up to the ranch, about 2 ½ miles up the canyon, then back down to evacuate the horses,” she said. “They started about 5 o’clock, and by 10:30 or 11 they had all the horses evacuated.”
Fire officials said they had no idea yet how the fire started. As of Thursday evening, there had been no structures damaged or injuries reported.
The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department and the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District have issued an Air Quality Warning for the southern areas of the county. The warning will remain in effect through the weekend unless conditions change.
Meanwhile, strong wind gusts and rising temperatures across the dry Western U.S. also worsened wildfires in other states. A blaze in central New Mexico exploded to nearly 19 square miles and forced residents to flee at least 50 homes after sending up a towering plume of smoke that blanketed the state's largest city in a thick haze. Some structures have burned, but it's not clear whether they were homes.
In eastern Arizona, a small community was evacuated and residents of five others were told to prepare to leave after a wind-whipped wildfire charred nearly 5 square miles within hours Wednesday. Blazes also had threatened homes in Nevada and Utah.