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Firefighters gaining on Gaviota blaze

8 June 2004

By SCOTT STEEPLETON and NORA K. WALLACE
NEWS-PRESSTAFF WRITER

Despite treacherous terrain, low humidity and temperatures well into the 80s, firefighters expect full containment of the Gaviota fire by Thursday.

Crews made use of clear skies and gentle breezes Monday to pound flames with water dropped from planes and helicopters. Meanwhile, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors declared a local state of emergency, which will lead to disaster relief funds from state and federal government.

The fire is burning in a northeast direction away from any residential area and deeper into Los Padres National Forest. Before it's over, the blaze could grow considerably from its 7,500-acre size. And though not devastating by South Coast standards -- the Painted Cave fire in 1990 leveled nearly 500 homes -- the Gaviota blaze will leave scars on the land for years and be remembered by some for a "helter-skelter" skirmish between humans and flames at the Gaviota Oil and Gas Processing Facility.

During a briefing before the supervisors, county Fire Chief John Scherrei said his people knew early on this fire, which started about 11:30 a.m. Saturday on the Gaviota Pass, would be significant. Boulders, including one topping 1,200 pounds, fell onto the highway, causing a rash of traffic accidents but no injuries.

Calls to 9-1-1, he added, strained the dispatch system. "We needed too much too soon," Chief Scherrei said. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

As of Monday, crews had the blaze 40 percent contained, and Deputy Fire Chief Steve Vittum told the supervisors that 14 helicopters were assisting in the firefighting effort, including four heavy-lift helicopters at a cost of about $8,000 per hour.

He estimated the fire's cost to be about $750,000.

"Before it's over, it'll be significantly more than that," he said.

Federal officials have said they will reimburse the county 75 percent of the cost to fight the fire; because the blaze is largely on state-owned land, California will pay the county for the remainder.

Containment is expected at 6 p.m. Thursday. But Deputy Chief Vittum said, "Before this is over, for us to find a place to put a line around this fire that we can feel real comfortable and secure with, it's going to get about twice the size that it is right now."

Added Chief Scherrei: "Come hell or high water, we will stop it at this point."

Despite its possible size, the number of people battling the fire was scaled back by about 40 to 973 as of Monday.

For two days, county fire crews have been on the grounds of Rancho del Cielo, the late President Reagan's former property, to lend a hand should flames come near.

"The fire is not on our property, but I know they were working on some sort of fire breakup near the ranch," said Andrew Coffin, communications director for the Reagan Ranch, which is now owned by the Young America's Foundation.

"Things were looking serious (Sunday), but we didn't have to evacuate," he said. "And we have a fire-suppression system on the property, but we haven't even had to utilize it."

Following two days of complete closure of Highway 101, all southbound lanes were open Monday. As of noon, the right lane heading north was closed at Arroyo Hondo, according to the California Highway Patrol.

For a third day, passenger and freight trains were not allowed through the area because of fire damage to a Union Pacific-owned trestle, and there was no specific date when they would be rolling again.

"It looks easily like a few days," said Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley. He said there is no way to measure the company's losses as a result of the damage.

The trestle is a combination of creosote-soaked timbers and steel. "We're assembling the materials to make the repairs," said Mr. Bromley.

The timbers, which caught fire on Saturday, were still smoldering Monday. The driver of a dump truck hauling timber away pulled over to the highway shoulder near Refugio State Beach about 4:45 p.m. after the bed of his rig became engulfed in flames.

An earlier report of a residence destroyed by the fire could not be confirmed on Monday.

Air quality had been a concern because of smoke, but the county Air Pollution Control District on Monday lifted a health advisory from a day earlier. Public information officer Bobbie Bratz warned that a new advisory, urging adults and children in areas affected by smoke to stay indoors as much as possible, could be issued at any time given the right conditions.

"Things are quite a bit different than they were," she said, "but if you can smell the smoke, take the precautions."

Vista de Las Cruces School was expected to welcome its 78 kindergartners through eighth-graders back today after giving them Monday off.

"We can't see any flames nearby," said Bernadette Speulba, administrative assistant. "We are looking at one mountain ridge that has smoke on it, fire taking place up there."

The school was untouched by flames, but a garage at the area's old campus, Vista del Mar School, suffered some scorching, one of only two confirmed damage reports.

Meanwhile, the Red Cross was closing the fire shelter at St. Raphael's Church in Goleta, after it went unused Sunday night. "We are folding down right now because the evacuation has been lifted," said spokeswoman Lucy Popova.

One of the fiercest battles of this blaze took place at the gas and oil processing plant north of Highway 101.

"I'm not sure how to even put that fight in words," said Capt. Johnson of the county Fire Department. "When I got up there, the incident commander said, 'Charlie, it is helter-skelter through here.'"

The winds were intense, and the flames were everywhere.

"Nobody could get a fixed position," said Capt. Johnson. "They'd move to knock a fire down then they'd move again to knock another fire down. They just had to keep moving with the fire."

In his report to the Board of Supervisors on Monday, Chief Scherrei said two spills may have occurred at the plant, but it was not yet safe enough to get hazardous-materials crews in there to see what happened.