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Flames menace highway

9 June 2004

By HILDY MEDINA
NEWS-PRESSTAFF WRITER

Raging winds pushed the Gaviota fire into Arroyo Hondo Canyon late Tuesday, leading to an evacuation of about eight residences.

Earlier, an eastward shift in the fire's direction abruptly caused the closure of Highway 101 at least twice, forcing commuters to jam Highway 154 in a traffic snarl that lasted all evening.

County Fire Capt. Charlie Johnson said sustained winds in low-lying areas reached 40 mph, 60 at the ridgeline, leaving crews virtually helpless to stop the advance.

"The crews are basically sitting in their engines, and we're watching for spot fires across the highway," he said. "You can't fight this fire. Even if you had aircraft, you couldn't fly it in these winds."

At about 3 p.m., the southeast end of the 7,000-acre blaze jumped a fire line and sparked a grass fire in a median on Highway 101 near Tajiguas Canyon. Heavy smoke made it difficult to see the road, prompting its closure between Winchester Canyon and Highway 246. A stretch of Highway 1 that feeds into the 101 from Lompoc was also closed for a while.

At the same time, flames moved near "Endless Summer" filmmaker Bruce Brown's home, west of Arroyo Hondo, but there was no damage to structures.

Four hours later, shifting winds carried embers east into Arroyo Hondo Canyon.

"It went up like a blowtorch," said Capt. Johnson.

Tuesday's ordeal frazzled motorists like Juan Sanchez, who was headed home to Lompoc on the freeway, only to be turned back when the northbound lanes were closed.

"It's a big problem," said the Santa Barbara mechanic as he stopped at the 76 Station at Winchester Canyon about 9 p.m. His hour-long commute would take 2 hours, he estimated.

Charlie Clements, driving a big rig from Fontana to Santa Maria, was also at the gas station, fuming. He was advised that his 18-wheeler could not navigate Highway 154 and he would have to drive back to Ventura and head east to Highway 5 for the trip north.

"It's real frustrating," said the Fallbrook man. "I've been doing this all my life -- you would think I'd get used to it."
The origin of the fire, which started about 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the Gaviota Pass tunnel, is still under investigation.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the fire was 40 percent contained with full containment expected by 6 p.m. Thursday. Lower temperatures and increased moisture predicted today will help with containment efforts, officials said.

But containment looked a little more distant Tuesday night when the wind picked up and changed the fire's direction.

Highway 101 reopened about 5 p.m. but was completely shut again about two and a half hours later, the third and fourth full closures of the highway since the fire began.

"The (fire) is just jeopardizing public safety and when it does that we have to close the roads," said California Highway Patrol Officer Don Clotworthy.

About 60 to 70 area residents gathered at Circle Bar B Guest Ranch on Tuesday night to get a fire update from County Fire Chief John Scherrei, along with officials from the California Department of Forestry, Los Padres National Forest Service and the CHP.

They talked about an emergency evacuation plan if the fire progresses to Arroyo Quemada Ridge, about two miles west of Refugio Canyon. The residents were assured they would have several hours to respond.

Chief Scherrei closed the meeting by saying, "I'd like to say don't worry, but I'm worried. This fire is moving. It's very unpredictable. We have some containment on this thing, about 40 percent. But look at what's happened this evening."

Things looked brighter earlier in the day, as firefighters managed to gain control of the blaze that so far has cost the county $1,373,000 to fight.

More than 1,400 firefighters battled the blaze. Ground crews using bulldozers, shovels and chain saws spent most of the day and evening going up against steep, rugged terrain to carve a perimeter around the fire.

The warm temperatures, which can often hamper firefighting efforts, also helped control the blaze, fire officials said.

"The fire needed a little bit of the warmth to continue to do what it needed to and that is go through unburned vegetation areas where we can't safely put firefighters," said Capt. Johnson.

A Sheriff's Department helicopter equipped with a global positioning system created numerous maps of the fire. It hovers around the edge of the blaze and records its travel onto a computerized map.

Assistant Metro Editor Scott Steepleton and Staff Writer Chuck Schultz contributed to this story. Contact Hildy Medina at hmedina@newspress.com.