SANTA BARBARA — Firefighters on Tuesday continued to battle a wind-driven brush fire that erupted a day earlier near Highway 154 in Santa Barbara County and burned quickly downhill, threatening thousands of properties and sending residents fleeing from their homes. The Cave fire started just after 4 p.m. Monday near East Camino Cielo and Painted Cave Road in Los Padres National Forest. It has exploded to 4,100 acres with no containment, according to the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. The blaze, fanned by erratic 50 mph sundowner winds, grew quickly overnight and was advancing toward populated areas in the cities of Santa Barbara and Goleta as well as unincorporated areas of the county.
About 600 firefighters were on scene early Tuesday battling the fire and defending homes from the advancing flames. Ten fixed-wing tankers and nine helicopters are expected to arrive in the next few hours to aid in the effort, said Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Daniel Bertucelli.
The fire prompted Santa Barbara County officials to declare a local emergency and request that Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaim a state of emergency for the region. The fire is “causing conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property within Santa Barbara County,” the county wrote.
As the fire grew late Monday, mutual aid started to arrive from neighboring counties to help local and national forest firefighters. The Ventura County Fire Department sent two strike teams — about 10 fire engines — Monday evening, and the Los Angeles County Fire Department sent a Firehawk helicopter, which is capable of performing nighttime water drops.
Engine teams were embedded in neighborhoods to defend homes in the fire’s path, and bulldozers and hand crews were at work throughout the night digging into the dirt to create containment lines around the perimeter of the blaze.Bertucelli said that as he was driving 55 mph on Highway 154 on Monday evening, the fire was keeping up with him, growing alongside the roadway. Once he reached lower elevations, though, the wind was much lighter.
No injuries have been reported, and no homes have been destroyed, officials said. It is not clear how the blaze started.
Officials say steep, rocky terrain in the area has been a challenge for crews trying to get a handle on the blaze. Firefighters expect their efforts throughout the day will be made more difficult by significant southwest winds blowing through the region. However, fire crews may be getting some help from Mother Nature by Tuesday evening, when a storm is expected to arrive in the area, Bertucelli said.
“What’s working in our favor is we’re getting rain tonight,” he said.
The storm, which is expected to drop about an inch of precipitation on the fire area, brings its own challenges in the burn area in the form of possible debris flows. During an early morning briefing, fire officials warned crews to be cautious when the rain starts and to have a plan in case roadways are washed out.
About 2,400 homes bordered by East Camino Cielo Road, Ontare Road, Foothill Road/Cathedral Oaks Road and Fairview Avenue are under mandatory evacuation orders. An evacuation warning was issued for the area north of Foothill Road and from Ontare Road east to Gibraltar Road.The impending rainstorm was welcome news to residents near the fire.
“People say, ‘what about the mudslides,’ but I believe we need it,” said Fred Cortez, standing in his socks on his ash-sprinkled porch in the Blue Skies Mobile Home Park on Tuesday. The night before, Cortez watched as car after car fled the mobile home park. The hillside glowed with a deep orange hue and ash fell like snow on neighborhoods as residents rushed to pack their belongings and leave their homes.
But, Cortez decided to stay.
The community was not under a mandatory evacuation order, and Cortez figured that if he really had to leave, police would come into the neighborhood to alert residents. In the meantime, he re-positioned his car so he wouldn’t need to pull out backwards in the event he needed to leave quickly, and began packing some important paperwork and belongings.
Cortez watched the news on his computer until 4 a.m., keeping the windows blinds up so he could spot the fire on the mountains outside.
“It looked like it would calm down, and then it would flare up again,” he said.
Stan Jeffries, 91, was at home with his wife in Santa Barbara County’s San Vicente Mobile Home Park on Monday afternoon when his daughter called to alert him to the fire. Jeffries walked out onto his street and could see plumes of smoke in the surrounding hillsides.
“First we saw smoke, and it wasn’t too alarming,” he said. “As it got darker, you could see the flames and they began to blossom.”
The fire didn’t seem to be an immediate threat, but hours later, a neighbor from their mobile home community’s disaster preparedness committee knocked on their door and told them it was time to leave.
The couple left about 2:30 a.m. after packing some blankets and important paperwork. As he sat at the evacuation center early Tuesday, Jeffries said he still wasn’t too worried about their home.
“I think our committee was a little conservative, but by the time we left, we could see the fire coming down the mountain,” he said.
[Additional notes by GSMOL Web Content Manager Anne Anderson, who lives in Rancho Santa Barbara MHP, which sits between Blue Skies and San Vicente] Our park also has a Disaster Preparedness team, and shortly after the fire was visible at the top of the mountain behind us, our area leaders and point people were going around their blocks, knocking on doors to make the residents aware of the fire. We have watched the area in the foothills behind our MH park being used as a staging area for firefighting aircraft and tanker trucks during various fires in the past – this time that same staging area is on fire. We thank the firefighters and other emergency responders and Disaster Preparedness teams for their work helping to keep us safe!]
Before the sun rose Tuesday, about 45 people who had evacuated were sleeping in the Goleta Valley Community Center, which had opened as a shelter for displaced residents hours earlier.
Among them was 90-year-old Irene Lamberti, who lives in an unincorporated area of Goleta, a few miles from the fire. She first saw smoke when she was driving home from a swim aerobics class on Monday afternoon. She didn’t think she would have to evacuate and settled down to watch “Antiques Roadshow” on television and eat dinner.
“I didn’t think it was going to affect us,” she said.
But about 8 p.m., authorities knocked on the door and told her that people in her neighborhood were evacuating. Lamberti and her husband spent about half an hour grabbing items from around their home and placing them in a small suitcase. They forgot their toothbrushes and her husband’s pajamas, she said, but the couple made sure to bring a Japanese embroidery of a geisha that Lamberti had been working on for months.
“Our house is like a museum. You can’t take everything,” she said. “I wasn’t going to leave that.”
Parts of Santa Barbara County are also experiencing power outages because of the fire. Outages have been reported in unincorporated areas between Goleta and Santa Barbara, along Highway 154 through Mission Canyon and parts of Summerland and Carpinteria, according to the county. Residents were being asked to visit the Southern California Edison website for outage updates.
The fire has chewed through dense, old brush in an area that hadn’t burned since the Painted Cave fire in 1990. That fire, which authorities say was the result of arson, destroyed hundreds of homes in the area and caused $250 million in damage.