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Residents readied for possible evacuation

10 June 2004

By HILDY MEDINA and CHUCK SCHULTZ
NEWS-PRESSTAFF WRITER

As the Gaviota fire settled down on Wednesday, firefighters used the reprieve to knock on doors in Refugio Canyon and prepare residents in case the wildly unpredictable blaze kicks up again.

About 120 firefighters fanned out in the secluded rural canyon to talk with residents about evacuation plans and try to quell their fears about the blaze burning three miles away.

"None of us have really slept at night," said resident Kathy Williams. "Whenever the wind picks up, we get really worried."

She and others have stayed close to home since the fire started on Saturday.

When the fire abruptly kicked up Tuesday night, firefighters managed to save a 163-year-old home and barn in the Arroyo Hondo Preserve from the flames, which burned within about 100 feet of the historic Ortega Adobe.

Most of the western half of the 782-acre coastal preserve was blackened when gusty winds up to 40 mph reinvigorated the blaze after two days of relative calm.

With cooler temperatures and a heavy drizzle Wednesday, the fire calmed down and gave firefighters a slight breather, though strong winds continually tested fire lines. Late Wednesday, fire officials said the blaze was 60 percent contained, and they estimated full containment by 6 p.m. today.

About 200 residents live in Refugio Canyon, where firefighters also spent the day looking for escape routes, clearing brush and making sure residents are prepared in case of evacuation. At each residence, pink tape was fixed to the mailbox indicating that contact had been made and the address noted for planning purposes.

Firefighters also helped residents organize a phone tree if evacuation becomes necessary. Residents were told they would likely have a four- to five-hour notice.

Jim Wedmore said residents understand that fire danger comes with living in the canyon. "If you live here, you know this is a bad fire season and it's going to be a long one."

On Wednesday, helicopters continued to dump water on hot spots. So far, the fire has burned 7,440 acres and cost $2.3 million to fight. The cause is under investigation.

Because of the danger, campgrounds at El Capitan, Refugio and Gaviota state beaches have been closed since Saturday. On Wednesday, Los Padres National Forest officials said they would impose additional fire restrictions throughout the forest starting June 11. Among them are no open campfires and no smoking.

Officials at the Arroyo Hondo Preserve were relieved firefighters were able to save the Ortega Adobe. The adobe walls are adorned with dozens of paintings and pastel artwork, mostly landscapes, by local artists John Iwerk and Chris Chapman. Several of those were loaded into a car by the fleeing preserve managers when they were forced to evacuate on Tuesday, but most of the artwork remained in harm's way as the fire burned through Arroyo Hondo.

"The need to evacuate quickly made it necessary to just kind of accept the sacrifice of the art," said Morgan Coffey, the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County's membership director. "Fortunately, that didn't come to pass."

Two preserve managers who live at Arroyo Hondo were evacuated late Tuesday afternoon but allowed to return Wednesday morning after winds receded and the fire was halted at the creekbed.

"Basically, the western half of the Arroyo Hondo watershed has burned, but the flames stopped at the canyon bottom and haven't crossed the creek," said Michael Feeney, the trust's executive director. Neither the Spanish adobe built in 1841 or the nearby barn, both on the east side of the canyon, were damaged.

"The firefighters did a great job of protecting what needs to be protected," he said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed on what happens next."

For days, "the fire had been mostly up in the chaparral" on the steep ridges above the preserve, only to be pushed down to the lower grasslands by the winds. Speaking as a true environmentalist, Mr. Feeney added: "In some ways it's an ideal burn because it cleared out mustard plants and weeds -- and the chaparral needed to burn, from an ecological standpoint."

The nature preserve a few miles west of Refugio Road was purchased by the trust in late 2001. It was bought for $6.2 million from a group of owners headed by J.J. Hollister, whose family acquired Arroyo Hondo in the early 1900s.

Its scenic canyon, with a deep sandstone gorge through which a creek flows, has been called a small-scale Yosemite Valley.

The fire has forced cancellation of some public activities scheduled on the property in the next several days. It also may temporarily interfere with twice-monthly nature tours and by-reservation hikes and picnics on the first and third Saturdays of each month.

The next scheduled date for hike-picnic reservations was June 19, with a naturalist-led tour set for June 20, but it's uncertain whether the public will be allowed back into the preserve that soon, Mr. Feeney said. "We haven't assessed what's next and when the preserve will be open again."

Updated information will be available on the preserve's hot line, 567-1115, or on its Web site, http://sblandtrust.org/arroyohondo.html.

When the preserve does reopen, the blackened slopes will provide a fascinating counterpoint to the unburned vegetation on the east side, Mr. Feeney said. "We'll have an interesting learning laboratory to see how the west side recovers."