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Wildfire scorches land in Santa Ynez Valley

5 May 2004

CHUCK SCHULTZ

NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER

Santa Barbara News-Press

Fire season began on an ominous note Monday, afternoon as U.S. Forest Service, county and Vandenberg Air Force Base firefighters battled, a, blaze of unknown origin that had blackened at least 100 acres of grass and brush along Happy Canyon Road, north of Lake Cachuma.

Humidity was low and air temperatures hovered around 100 degrees in the eastern, Santa Ynez Valley when the flames erupted about 2:48 p.m. near the intersection of Happy Canyon and Figueroa Mountain roads, fire officials said.

On Santa Barbara County's first official, day of the 2004 fire season, wary firefighters had one thing on, their side: winds were relatively light when the blaze began, then diminished in the evening as humidity levels began rising.

"The fire is laying down pretty good for us tonight, but we're still not declaring any containment or control time," said Joe Pasinato, a Forest Service spokesman.

About 150 firefighters, one bulldozer, three air tankers - used to drop fire retardant on the flames - and a water-dropping helicopter were used to battle the fire, which burned mostly grass and chaparral. No burn injuries were reported, but fire officials were investigating unconfirmed reports that several people who were in the vicinity when the fire began had suffered cuts, bruises and possibly smoke inhalation trying to flee through the brush and rugged terrain on foot.

There also were conflicting reports that one or two structures had burned shortly after the fire started, but Forest Service officials could not confirm that. "We still have unconfirmed information that possibly some outbuildings associated with the Red Rock Mine, and some inoperative vehicles, may have burned," Mr. Pasinato said.

The cause of the fire is not known, officials said. "We haven't heard anything about the cause or (exact) point of origin, other than that it's under investigation," said Barry Peckham, a Forest Service fire information officer.

Smoke from the blaze was visible from the South Coast.

Officials cautioned that this fire, erupting so early in the year, is a signal of the heightened danger resulting from well below-normal rainfall and unusually high temperatures recently.

"I think this is a pretty good indication of what we might be looking at for this season and the remainder of the summer: hot (temperatures) and very dry fuels," Mr. Pasinato predicted "Have fun, out there, but be careful."

As the fire burned in an easterly direction, several miles north of the lake and about 10 miles from Highway 154, flames had spread across about 10 acres of the San Rafael Wilderness area.

In October, several miles to the south along Happy Canyon Road, a wind-driven blaze in the De la Guerra Springs area scorched about 250 acres before being extinguished by Forest Service and county firefighters.

Almost exactly a year ago, fire destroyed the long-vacant Cachuma Saddle Station at the intersection of Happy Canyon and Figueroa Mountain roads on May 7, 2003. Those flames were snuffed out before spreading to the surrounding vegetation, however.

e-mail cschultz@ news-press.com