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Gaviota fire rages

7 June 2004

By LEAH ETLING
NEWS-PRESSTAFF WRITER

A half-century worth of brush and timber fueled a savage summer wildfire that's flaring north and south of Gaviota Pass with no containment in sight.

The fire had consumed about 7,500 acres late Sunday, much of it federal land. More than 1,000 firefighters were on hand from around the state to battle the blaze, and they cleared more than 16 miles of fire line to try to get a handle on it. Several buildings burned and there was one minor injury reported.

Hundreds of people who had been evacuated from their homes were allowed to return on Sunday evening, and Highway 101 was reopened after Caltrans crews moved downed power lines and firefighters cleaned up spot fires in the median. But for the most part, the blaze has now moved away from the coastal thoroughfare and is raging in remote canyons and along ridges.

On Sunday, plumes of smoke could be seen rising three miles south of Gaviota, including in the canyon behind the Arroyo Hondo Preserve.

From his hilltop residence in Hollister Ranch, Jerry Wallner watched the flames eight miles to the east. He lauded the pilots who dared strong winds and high flames in trying to quell the blaze.

"It's burning radically at the top of Camino Cielo right now. It has burned even to the highest ridge of Gaviota," he reported by cell phone Sunday afternoon. "There's so much fuel that nothing's going to stop it, except burning itself out."

Early Sunday morning, flames licked the crest of the 2,458-foot-high Gaviota Peak. Smoke filled the air from Lompoc to Carpinteria and the county Air Pollution Control District issued a health advisory recommending that those living in affected areas avoid going outside.

Travelers driving north on Highway 101 from Santa Barbara saw the first roadside scarring about two miles south of the Gaviota tunnel. Charred hillsides, browned trees and smouldering spots marred the foothills.

The blaze is the most visible South Coast fire since the Painted Cave fire in 1990, which leveled 479 homes and killed one person. Other large fires have blackened the backcountry since then, but drivers on Highway 101 will see the effects of the Gaviota fire for years to come.

"It's an amazing historical fire for this area. I don't think anybody has seen a fire like this for some time," said Mr. Wallner, who has lived on Hollister Ranch for 35 years.

The cause of the fire is still unknown, and investigators are seeking information from anyone who was driving southbound on Highway 101 near the Highway 1 intersection between 11:30 a.m. and noon Saturday, about the time the fire started.

It has so far burned three buildings: a house, a garage at the old Vista Del Mar school campus, and another outbuilding, according to Capt. Charlie Johnson, a county fire spokesman. The lemon and avocado orchards of one Hollister Ranch homeowner went up in flames.

The only injury reported was a firefighter who slipped and fell.

The fire skirted the Reagan Ranch on Saturday and later burned right up to the Arguello Inc. oil refinery, but a concerted effort by firefighters pushed the blaze back. On Sunday, a disoriented doe wandered through ashes under charred eucalyptus trees outside the refinery fence.

Across the freeway, a railway bridge beyond the Shell Oil storage yard was still smoking. Union Pacific engineers were on the scene sizing up the damage.

More than 500 feet of the 752-foot-long structure was extensively damaged, Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley said. The wooden crossbeams supporting the track had burned, but "the steel part seems to be OK. We are looking for a source of replacement crossbeams," Mr. Bromley said.

He said he doesn't know how long it will take to repair the bridge.

Amtrak is now busing passengers between Santa Barbara and the North County. In Goleta, a freight train was left stranded near the Storke Road exit.

Steep, rocky terrain made vehicle access to some spot fires along the mountain range impossible, said California Department of Forestry information officer Mitch Villialpando.

"The problem we have here is geography," he said.

Erratic winds off the ocean sometimes sent flames down into the canyons, other times up toward ridges, and evening sundowners of up to 50Êmph could change the situation in minutes.

"It really hasn't slowed down (since it started)," Mr. Villialpando added. The evening fog brought some helpful moisture, but at elevations above 1,300 feet, the air stayed dry and allowed flames to spread.

Bulldozers worked along accessible ridge tops to set up lines in an attempt to halt the fire, and firetrucks on Sunday were poised behind homes at the base of Arroyo Hondo.

"The winds could change and push the fire back toward the residences," Mr. Villialpando said.

Residents in the Arroyo Hondo and Hollister Ranch areas were evacuated on Saturday, but allowed to return on Sunday, although many found phone lines dead.

A couple who keep horses at the Arroyo Hondo Canyon, home of the historic Ortega adobe, built in 1841, returned to pick up the animals on Sunday.

Santa Barbara Land Trust director Michael Feeney said he wasn't worried about the endangered species on the Arroyo Hondo Preserve because most of them -- like steelhead trout, tidewater goby and California red-legged frog -- live in the water.

"If the fire is concentrated up in dense chaparral, typically it doesn't burn into the creek corridors," he said.

Firefighters were also working west of Highway 101 to fight part of the blaze that approached Hollister Ranch.

Santa Ynez Valley resident Philip Hart helped friends who live on the ranch gather pets and belongings Saturday afternoon as they watched the fire grow.

"The flames were exploding skyward while spreading both east and west, fueled by the wind and dry chaparral," he said. He fled the ranch by the western exit but almost wasn't able to leave.

A gate closure that prevented access through the Bixby Ranch angered him and others trying to drive in or out of Hollister Ranch along private roads.

"I was appalled," Mr. Hart said.

Mr. Wallner's wife spent the night at Jalama Beach on Saturday because the Bixby gate was locked.

A Red Cross shelter for up to 250 people is set up at St. Raphael's Church in Goleta. Public support specialist Lucy Popova said just one person stayed there Saturday night.

"People might have already found somewhere else to stay," Ms. Popova said. "We are planning to keep it open for two or three days to see how the situation unfolds."