Saturday, February 23, 2019     Volume: 19, Issue: 51

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on July 11th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 19 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 19, Issue 19

After slow start, fire season roars to life

By Spencer Cole

The call came in around 8 p.m. on a Friday night and the worst fears were quickly confirmed. A wildland fire on the north side of Goleta, fanned by 40 mph wind gusts, was pushing down the mountains rapidly toward homes, neighborhoods, and the city proper. 

Fire crews, stationed nearby due to a Red Flag Warning issued by the National Weather Service earlier that day, quickly sprung into action. 

They only had minutes to respond. 

By the next morning, 13 homes were blackened piles of rubble and ash, another three suffered damage, and more than 100 acres had been charred. 

The blaze was fed by a two-day high-wind event, single-digit humidity, and triple-digit temperatures 

An air crew dumps water on the smoldering remains of the Holiday Fire just off Fairview Avenue in Goleta on July 7.

"This fire could have been a lot worse," Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson reported to the Board of Supervisors at their July 10 meeting. 

If not for the Red Flag Warning, which allowed the county to pull from state funding to place a series of strike teams–essentially fully loaded fire engine crews––near vulnerable areas, who knows what destruction the flames could have wrought, he said. 

The July 6 fire, dubbed the Holiday Fire, was more than 90 percent contained as of the Sun's press time on July 10. The blaze serves as a reminder for county residents that fire season is indeed in full swing, according to firefighters and county officials. 

Santa Barbara County Fire Department Public Information Officer Mike Eliason saw the flames in person. He told the Sun the Holiday Fire was a perfect example for everyone across the entire state to be ready to evacuate at any given moment. 

"We were always taught that for the urban wildland interface, but look at Santa Rosa," he said, referencing the devastating and deadly fires that wrecked the Northern California wine country last summer. "I mean, that was straight urban, and it burned right through the urban wildland interface and marched right into the urban."

During the Jesuita Fire in 2009, he added, the evacuation zone was State Street, the heart of downtown Santa Barbara.

"So you know it can happen," Eliason said. "We have to be prepared." 

At the Holiday Fire's height, 75 engines and more than 500 personnel were on scene. The crews hailed from as far north as Santa Maria all the way down to southern California. Los Angeles County even provided a Blackhawk night-flying helicopter. The craft is capable of dumping 1,000 gallons of water in a single drop, or the equivalent of an entire load of one water tender engine on the ground. 

Cal Fire estimates suppression costs numbered around $1.5 million. As of the Sun's press time, dozens of homes remained without power. There were no injuries. 

"It really was a miracle that no one was killed," Eliason said. "That area really didn't have a [recent] fire history. There was a lot of unburned vegetation and the fire was pushed along by those down-canyon winds." 

According to Eliason, the winds created sporadic fire behavior: The blaze would get pushed by a gust and do a thin "run" and hit specific areas very quickly, as if launched out of a flamethrower.

"This is where you can see trees that were barely touched but houses right next to them completely destroyed," he explained. 

The oscillating winds created nightmarish conditions. 

"There was almost zero visibility, with fire on both sides of the road, it was hopscotching around," Eliason said. "We had 5-gallon propane tanks and aerosol cans blowing up, and wires down that we couldn't tell if they were live or not."

Crews were able to make a stand at La Goleta Road and eventually suppress and tame the rampant blaze. But they were lucky, fire officials say. 

If not for the accurate weather forecast, the fire could have potentially burned completely out of control. 

"We knew it was Red Flag conditions," Eliason said. "We knew the temperatures were extreme. We knew the winds were coming, and we knew the relative humidity was bone dry." 

Which is why fire strike teams were on hand to be a part of the initial dispatch calling for firefighters to respond. Still, Eliason noted, "It's witchcraft predicting weather on the West Coast," and crews may not be so well placed the next time a spark roars to life.

And everyone should be ready when it happens. 

"It's a horrible, horrible cliche and it sounds like a terrible talking point, but it was explosive fire behavior," Eliason said. "This is the new normal ... this is the way it is."

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