There is a time of year that many residents of Santa Barbara County fear, when the warm ocean breezes that usually meander from the coast give way to howling winds that shake the oaks, transporting clouds. Dust and offer the potential for disaster.
The dreaded sunset winds, which tumble down the slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains towards the sea, are exclusive to the region’s topography and have stoked some of its worst wildfires, including the Sherpa fire of 2016, which burned 7,500 acres in less than three days.
It looked like history might repeat itself on Tuesday, as the Alisal fire rose to more than 13,000 acres, marking the first major wildfire of the season in Southern California.
The blaze was fueled by drought-parched terrain and gusts of 40 mph, conditions that made firefighting efforts difficult, officials said. After sunset on Tuesday, the Alisal fire was contained to 5% and the winds had started to strengthen again.
The fire, the cause of which remains unknown, started around 2:30 p.m. Monday. Within hours, winds propelled the blaze south toward the Tajiguas landfill and Highway 101, officials said, where it then crossed the asphalt barrier in several places.
The Sherpa fire “did the same,” said Tom Himmelrich, Santa Barbara County Fire Department battalion commander, as he stood amid swirling ash and smoke from the blaze. from Alisal. “It started on top of the mountain in the sunset winds, and it blew all the way here.”
As of Tuesday morning, authorities had evacuated hundreds of homes, canceled Amtrak services to the area and closed part of the highway as flames tore through the fine grasses and dense chaparral that dot the hills.
The winds and smoke were so strong that some fixed-wing firefighting planes couldn’t fly, Himmelrich said – leaving hand crews and helicopters to work quickly to protect what they could.
On top of a hillside property, about 15 firefighters – of about 600 battling the blaze – hacked into the dried up hill with hoes and chainsaws as thick smoke billowed just above. beyond the ridge.
Himmelrich said some areas on Alisal’s path have not burned down since the Refugio fire in 1955, so there is “a lot of dead fuel mixed in there”, but the strong winds, low humidity and dry vegetation spurred most of the growth – much like they did with other wildfires this year.
Sunsets can happen throughout the year, but are most dreaded during fire season. California winds of Santa Ana and Diablo often arrive in the fall, leaving some officials concerned that there could be a lot more fire season ahead.
Officials said most of the homes threatened by the Alisal fire on Tuesday were in Refugio Canyon, although evacuation orders and warnings extend from Gaviota to Naples. The California governor’s office of emergency services said evacuation orders affect thousands of residents.
Among the properties that were uncomfortably close to the flames were Rancho del Cielo, once a vacation home for President Reagan and his wife, Nancy.
Although Refugio Canyon is not densely populated, it is a tight-knit community with a rich history. Residents called to check on each other on Tuesday; some gathered along Refugio Road to watch the flames roll down a hill.
Brian and Tracy Stuart, owners of a 20-acre property known as Gaia Farm, followed updates from a relative’s home in Santa Barbara after the fire forced them to flee.
The couple raise cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, goats, rabbits and other animals on their farm. They were able to evacuate some of the animals, but not all, on Monday and Tuesday with the help of Santa Barbara Animal Services.
“I have a barn full of chicks right now,” said Brian Stuart, “and if it goes through that …”
He couldn’t finish the thought.
They weren’t the only ones whose precious possessions remained unresolved.
In a Dos Pueblos High School evacuation center, Stefanie Alboff and his wife Stacey Meredith were sitting with their 5-year-old son, Nash, unsure of what to do.
The trio had been camping at Refugio State Beach since Thursday and had left their trailer Monday afternoon to venture out to a nearby restaurant. At the time, they didn’t know they couldn’t come back.
“When we left there was no fire,” Alboff said. “We were only gone a few hours – that’s how fast it happened.”
The trailer contains everything they brought with them on their trip from the Sacramento area, they said, including their wedding rings.
“The most important thing is that we are all safe,” Alboff said as his son colored a worksheet. But the second most important thing was Frankie, her teddy bear, who was waiting for her in the trailer.
Another ranch owner, Eric Hvolboll, stood atop a hill in the heart of his 746-acre property, La Paloma, as helicopters flew overhead.
“It’s like LAX,” the 66-year-old joked, as one helicopter after another lined up to tap into his tank and shoot water for their pipes.
The flames chewed through the brushy grasses of a nearby hill, spitting white smoke as Hvolboll watched from above. Although the area was subject to evacuation orders, he and two employees remained behind.
It was an all-too-familiar scene, Hvolboll said: The Sherpa fire burned nearly 700 acres of its land five years ago, killing around 900 of its 9,000 lawyers and damaging 700 more. Drought and fire have left him several thousand fewer trees than he had back then, he said, and he is now turning part of his property into rows of agave tolerant. drought.
From his vantage point, he could see both the Alisal fire and his family’s house, built in 1902 by his great-grandparents.
“It’s part of the natural cycle,” he said of the fires in California, as another helicopter plunged into the smoke.
But the fight was far from over, with firefighters and weather officers warning the fierce sunsets could continue for several hours.
A wind advisory covering the burn area was in effect until 9 p.m. Tuesday, the National Weather Service said. Northwest to north winds of 15 to 30 mph were expected, with gusts up to 45 mph.
The winds, coupled with thick smoke, triggered air quality monitoring in Santa Barbara County, with authorities warning the gusts could raise dust and ash.
Kathy Brown Tammietti, who evacuated her ranch on Monday, along with her husband, father and dog, said it was “like deja vu” as they were in the same hotel they stayed at when the fire in the Sherpa forced them to evacuate in 2016.
“It’s like a replay of everything that happened,” she said.
His grandmother founded their ranch, Circle Bar B, in 1939, and over the years the property has hosted weddings, conferences, and other events.
She feared that three events scheduled for this week would be canceled because of the fire, marking among other things a significant loss of income.
“We took everything we could,” said Brown Tammietti, “but you can’t take that much when you only have an hour or so to get out of there and you have a lifetime of valuables. . “