Santa Barbara County has declared a state of emergency as a fast-growing wildfire spreads over the Santa Ynez Mountains, threatening crops and rural homes, officials announced Friday.
Fields of avocado, lemon and olives have been damaged by the Sherpa fire, which grew to 4,000 acres overnight and was only 5% contained, county officials said.
Chewing through vegetation that hasn’t burned since the 1950s and pushed by 40 mph winds, the Sherpa fire crawled toward Highway 101 between El Capitan State Beach and Gaviota, forcing the California Highway Patrol to shut down the coastal route overnight. It reopened early Friday morning.
CHP officials said the highway will likely close again Friday night and possibly Saturday night, when a heat wave is expected to settle over the area and trigger the worst “sundowner” winds firefighters have seen so far.
“Even though conditions appear to have become better in the day the truth is things can and do change very rapidly in the evening,” said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.
A water treatment plant burned down Thursday night in El Capitan Canyon. The plant provided water to El Capitan State Park for bathrooms, water fountains and other facility necessities, according to officials.
Eric Hjelstrom, superintendent of California state parks, said the facility was closed before the fire reached the tank. The state park and others will remain closed until the mandatory evacuation orders have been lifted.
“The only impact is El Capitan State Beach,” he said. “This was a big impact but my goal is to get that park open as soon as possible.”
Hjelstrom said he was not sure of the financial burden the destroyed water treatment plant would have, but that his focus was on protecting infrastructure and resources.
For the next few days, crews are at the mercy of fire-stoking sundowner winds, which are the result of hot air from the Santa Ynez Mountains clashing with cool air off the Pacific Ocean.
During the day, the fire has somewhat predictable patterns, following topography. But when the sundowners arrive at sunset, the fire can become unpredictable and grow rapidly.
Those winds are expected to peak Saturday after 5 p.m. On Sunday, temperatures could climb into the 90s and on Monday, firefighters could be working in triple-digit heat, the National Weather Service said.
The state is entering its fifth year of drought, and officials say the Sherpa blaze is a grim omen for what could be a summer and fall of fire.
“The fuels out there are drought-stressed. There’s a lot of tree mortality out there,” said Robert Baird, supervisor for Los Padres National Forest, where much of the fire is burning. “The drought is making an already pretty volatile situation not any better.”
This year, wildfires have burned more than 30,000 acres on state and federal land. That is about equal to or slightly higher than the same period in 2015, a particularly destructive year of fire that left at least nine people dead and burned 307,598 acres and hundreds of homes.
“You add a little bit of wind and these continued drought conditions and fires are going to threaten more homes and do more damage and take more resources,” said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The blaze began about 3:20 p.m. Wednesday near Refugio Road, the site of a devastating fire in 1955 that scorched homes and farms and burned more than 70,000 acres before it was done.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said mandatory evacuations for El Capitan, Refugio, Venadito and Las Flores canyons north of Santa Barbara remained in effect, while residents of neighboring communities such as Las Llagas, Gato, Las Varas, Dos Pueblos and Eagle canyons received evacuation warnings.
Riley Keith, a 65-year-old retiree, saw the smoke blanket the sky over El Capitan Ranch and knew it was time to go.
Keith, his wife, Yvonne, his mother, Betty Bosworth, and their dog and bird have been living out of their car since the fire grew Wednesday.
They were living at his sister’s ranch in El Capitan when mandatory evacuation orders were issued for their area Wednesday night. His sister stayed behind, while he and his family slept in an Albertsons parking lot.
“She’s tough as nails,” he said. “But you have to be when you’re running a ranch. My wife and I just couldn’t stand the smoke.”
Keith is a Santa Barbara native who has grown accustomed to wildfires in the area.
“It hasn’t burned in so long. I guess it needed to happen,” he said. “But who needs a disaster?”
The second night they lived in their car, the family went to a nearby park by Albertsons in Goleta. Keith’s sister calls him daily, keeping him updated on the fire burning around the ranch.
While the fire continues to burn, Keith and his family will stay at the Wake Center at 300 N. Turnpike Road in Goleta.
“I’m not going to stay where there’s a mandatory evacuation,” he said. “And she called me to say it was twice as smoky this morning.”
Residents in the area are all too familiar with the devastation these powerful winds can bring. In 1990, in the wake of strong winds, the Painted Cave fire burned 5,000 acres in three hours and destroyed 427 homes.
In 2008, sparked by a smoldering bonfire on a ridgeline overlooking Montecito, the 1,940-acre Tea fire damaged 219 homes.
Authorities on Friday told residents in areas near the evacuation zone to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. Air quality control officials said the fire has affected the air so residents in the area should keep their windows closed and if possible, rely on air conditioning.
Los Angeles firefighters, meanwhile, are alerting residents that the smoke they smell in the San Fernando Valley is likely from the Sherpa fire. The department tweeted Friday morning it has received several 911 calls from concerned citizens.
12:04 p.m.: This article was updated with weather forecasts and reactions from county officials.
9:29 a.m.: This article was updated with reactions from residents.
7:06 a.m.: This article was updated with information about the size of the fire increasing.
This article was originally published at 5:25 a.m.
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