Progress reported in CA coastal fires

Many evacuees return home but smoke and heavy ashes prompt breathing warnings.

BY PJ HELLER | GOLETA, CA | July 8, 2008


CONCENTRATION -- More than 1,000 firefighters worked to contain the Gap Fire in Santa Barbara County Saturday. The fire had forced the evacuation of 1,855 homes and threatened 3,000 others.
Credit: DNN/PJ HELLER

Still dressed in his red, white and blue American flag shirt for the Fourth of July, Ed Justus relaxed with two of his neighborhood cronies Saturday at an evacuation center set up for residents forced to flee their homes in the Gap Fire.

"We're doing what we're supposed to do," Justus said, referring to the various mandatory evacuation orders that have been issued since the blaze erupted in the rugged hillsides above Goleta on California's Central Coast.

"I have the whole back end of my car filled with pertinent papers and things, pictures, a change of clothes and a cell phone," Justus said. "I'm ready to stay here a few days, I guess."

More than 1,000 firefighters on Saturday were battling the Gap Fire, which was the state's top priority blaze due to the threat it posed to populated residential areas. Since it erupted Tuesday night, it has blackened 8,694 acres, forced the evacuation of 1,855 homes and threatens as many as 3,000 others.

An estimated 78 people, including Justus and Rehwoldt, spent the night Friday at a shelter set up by the American Red Cross in the cafeteria and gym at San Marcos High School. Justus celebrated his July 4 birthday at the shelter.

Some 100 people took shelter there the previous night, up from 11 who were there on Wednesday night. The Salvation Army was providing breakfast, lunch and dinner for evacuees.

"We're doing really well and people are doing the best they can under the circumstances," said Janet Stanley, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross in Santa Barbara County.

The shelter also allowed people to bring their small pets, which were lined up in cages outside the school's classrooms; some of the pet owners slept outside on cots next to their pets.

By Tuesday night, the fire was 50 percent contained; no homes had been destroyed or damaged although officials said some outbuildings and vehicles, including possibly a mobile home, may have been destroyed. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries.

Incident commander Jim Smith also warned that tough times could still be ahead.

"Be under no illusion that we are going to be out of the woods in this thing," Smith said. "This is a tough, tough firefight."

The fire was being battled both on the ground and from the air, using helicopters, air tankers and a DC-10 tanker plane.

Officials were keeping a close eye on the weather, especially the sundowner winds which have caused the size of the fire to explode. At times, those winds coming out of the mountains were gusting at 50 mph, although they tapered off slightly on Friday night and early Saturday morning.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has declared a state of emergency for the area, was briefed Saturday at the Gap Fire command center, then held a news conference where he praised the work of firefighters throughout the state and the cooperation and coordination among federal, state, county and local agencies. Firefighters from 41 states have been helping battle California wildfires.

"I always say that we're very fortunate in California, because we have a lot of disasters and if it wouldn't be for those heroic firefighters that are the best trained, the most courageous, the best experienced, most experienced firefighters in the world, if it wouldn't be for them we wouldn't be this lucky," the governor said. "But we are very lucky to have them and we want to thank them so much for the great effort."

The Gap Fire was one of more than 300 fires still burning in California. At the peak, there were 1,783 fires burning statewide since June 20. Schwarzenegger reported that a total of 520,000 acres had burned so far throughout California and that 67 structures had been destroyed. One of the major blazes was the Basin Complex wildfire in the Los Padres National Forest, which was threatening Big Sur. Some 2,000 firefighters were battling to protect that resort area; the fire, which has burned more than 71,200 acres as of Saturday night, was only 23 percent contained on Tuesday.

Schwarzenegger said that while the state was "very well prepared" for wildfires, the sheer number of blazes, most of them caused by lightning, was overwhelming.

"When you wake up one morning like I did 14 days ago and I got a briefing that we had 500 fires all over the state of California, it was quite a shock to me," he said. "The next morning there were 1,000 fires statewide and then the next morning it was 1,400 and then it was 1,700. So it was really overwhelming for the state of California to see this many fires all because of lightning that happened over the last 14 days."

The Gap Fire is believed to be human-caused and remains under investigation.

Scherrei noted that some of the tinder-dry brush in the path of the fire hasn't burned since 1955, when the Refugio Fire occurred. Other areas were burned in 1990, in the devastating Painted Cave Fire, which destroyed as many as 500 homes and caused $250 million in damages.

"It's a south-facing slope, the sun is beating on it all year and so all that vegetation has been there since 1955 at least, that's when the Refugio Fire came through, and then in 1990 it was the Painted Cave," Scherrei said.


Related Topics:

Survivors struggle, help others

Episcopal churches find ways to help

Churches open doors to fire refugees


More links on Wildfires

 

Related Links:

Google Map showing active CA Wildfires

Advertisers:

DNN Sponsors include:

Advertisements: