Smoke from wildfires burning out of control in Ventura County choked the Santa Barbara area Sunday as high temperatures, windy conditions and steep terrain plagued containment efforts.
Yesterday, smoke from the Piru fire in the Los Padres National Forest, 30 miles south of Santa Barbara, could be seen as far north as Jalama Beach near Vandenberg Air Force Base in northern Santa Barbara County.
While no fires were burning in Santa Barbara County as of yesterday afternoon, the Fire Chief’s Association expanded a general red flag fire alert to include all of Santa Barbara County. The alert was initially issued Friday, but only included the south coast area between Gaviota and the Ventura County line.
“Local fire agencies have staffed … additional firefighters in anticipation of … hotter and dryer conditions accompanied by strong winds during the next few days,” the alert stated.
In addition to more personnel being added to wildfire engine crews, the alert announces the cancellation of firefighter vacations and the callback of off-duty employees to make up for personnel working on fires outside the county.
Fire Dept. spokesman Capt. Charlie Johnson said Santa Barbara has the warm and dry temperatures, but is missing the wind that has fanned flames in Ventura.
Johnson said a total of 55 to 60 firefighters from departments within Santa Barbara County have been deployed as part of interagency strike teams being sent to aid fire-fighting efforts in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
However, Johnson said the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. remains at full staffing because of the callbacks, despite the number of employees serving outside of the county.
“We’re fully staffed and operational,” Johnson said. “The area fire chiefs have twice daily conference calls to keep everyone updated on the current situation.”
Johnson said the 911 emergency dispatch center has been “inundated” with calls from people wondering about the drift smoke, which is spreading along the coastal Santa Ynez mountains and into the Santa Barbara Channel. He said the fire department urges people to stay indoors because the air is definitely “not good air to breathe.”
“We really need to encourage people not to call 911 if they see smoke or smell smoke odor,” Johnson said. “This isn’t an emergency for us.”
As part of the red flag fire alert, Johnson said the fire department has asked the Amateur Radio Emergency Services group to patrol roads in areas of severe fire danger. In addition, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept. is expanding its aerial coverage of its Wildfire Patrol Program to spot new fires as quickly as possible.
Johnson said the last time the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. was on an alert of this level was over the past Fourth of July holiday. He said this type of firefighting resource mobilization is not particularly rare during the fire season and other periods of hot, dry weather.
As of Sunday morning, the Piru fire, which was five miles northeast of the community of Piru in Ventura County, had burned 1,253 acres. However, by Sunday afternoon, Forest Service Fire Information Officer Joe Pasinato said the fire had swelled to 10,000 acres.
By 8:00 p.m., the fire had consumed nearly 25,000 acres, according to a Forest Service fire status update.
“It’s grown significantly in size to the west and southwest,” Pasinato said. “The Ventura County Sheriff’s Dept. is now recommending voluntary evacuations of Piru and Fillmore.”
Pasinato said that because the fire spread so quickly, information on structures destroyed or in danger was not yet available.
While the U.S. Forest Service estimated the Piru fire to be 85 percent contained as of Sunday morning, that number had dropped to 5 percent by Sunday night.
The cause of the fire, which started at 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 23, is still under investigation. Seven hundred and eighty-four firefighters and support personnel are working to contain the flames, along with seven helicopters and four air tankers, according to the Forest Service fire status update. A total of six firefighters sustained minor injuries while battling the blaze, but all have been treated and released back to their camps.
To date, the Forest Service estimates the Piru fire has cost $1.1 million to fight.