Tuesday morning brought hope. The past evening’s ferocious winds had died down, and a cloud cover helped keep the temperatures down and the humidity up. By mid-morning, as the cloud cover lifted, both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft were hammering the fire lines. With most of the west portion of the fire contained, the focus turned to a several-thousand-acre section of steep, rugged terrain to the east. The area, bounded by Oso Canyon, the river road, and a three-mile-long trail that connects the Buckhorn Jeepway to the Santa Ynez River, became the primary focus of fire-suppression efforts.
While the aerial support was used to slow the fire’s progress along the narrow, twisting Buckhorn Road, attention was turned to putting down layer after layer of retardant along the upper part of the Camuesa Connector Trail to reinforce dozer lines and to provide support for the hot-shot crews heading up to cut line from there down to the river.
In the two hours I’m up at the staging area at the upper trailhead, I spot numerous drops, including those by the newest plane in the firefighting arsenal, a Neptune BAE 146, that makes three drops in what seems like record turnaround time. The plane is a full-on jet, not quite the size of a DC-10, but it has the capacity to carry a load of between 3,000-5,000 gallons.
This one doesn’t appear that big in the sky until you notice the lead plane, which looks more like a gnat leading a charging warrior into the fray. The jet circles twice clockwise, then after a second pass curves right into a counter-clockwise pattern circling a long ridge off to the east. Then it comes charging over the ridge and dips down, dropping toward the knoll I’m on before lifting upward and releasing its payload. Wow.
At the morning briefing today at Live Oak Campground, the words were encouraging ones. Containment line surrounds most of the fire perimeter now, with the exception of the northern edge, and the forecast is for a continuation of wind patterns similar to yesterday. The word at fire camp, however, was one of caution. While conditions are favoring firefighters, the Burn Index, a relative measure of fire-control difficulty, has increased from 40 yesterday to 56 today. Doubling the index translates to twice the effort may be needed to control the fire. Temperatures are expected to be in the high 80s to low 90s as well, with humidity fluctuating as the winds shift from more onshore flows to those coming off the interior.
The good news is also that residents are being allowed back in the canyon and on the fire line there have been no injuries to date. It is possible that the fire effort could shift from suppression to mop-up mode within the next few days. “There are still plenty of hot spots out there and work to be done,” Operations Chief Steve Stoll told the assembled firefighters. “The fire perimeter hasn’t changed, but the potential that it could is greater today.”
Meanwhile, it appears more certain that the rumors of the White Fire being started by a careless person who discarded hot coals on the ground at the White Rock Day Use Area are true. While not commenting directly on this, when I asked one person familiar with the situation why the Forest Service hadn’t closed down the BBQs there, he replied, “Here’s what I think happened. There are only a limited number of BBQ spots at the camps, so most of those who come up here come with their own, the small Weber-types that are easy to transport. It appears this person decided to dump them on the ground rather than disposing them safely.” Apparently these are okay as long as they are used within the area where there are designated fire pits and plenty of open space. The origin of the fire was at the far east end of the White Rock area in a location that is known for its privacy and more direct access to the river.
More severe fire restrictions within Los Padres Forest were initiated on May 17 to coincide with an increase to Level III fire conditions.
• Wood and charcoal fires are prohibited in all areas of Los Padres National Forest except for designated Campfire Use sites; however, persons with a valid California Campfire Permit are allowed to use portable stoves and lanterns using gas, jellied petroleum, or pressurized liquid fuel outside of designated Campfire Use Sites. All flammable material must be cleared for a distance of five feet in all directions from your camp stove, have a shovel available, and ensure that a responsible person attends the stove at all times when it is in use.
• Recreational target shooting is prohibited in all areas of the National Forest unless specifically authorized by a special use permit with the forest.
• Hunting with a valid State of California hunting license during open hunting season is exempt from this restriction.
• Smoking is prohibited in all areas of the national forest except within an enclosed vehicle, building, or designated Campfire Use Site.
• Operating or using any internal or external combustion engine without a spark-arresting device properly installed, maintained and in effective working order on roads and trails specifically designated for such use. (This restriction is in effect year-round.)
It appears that the prohibition for use of wood and charcoal fires needs to be extended to designated campgrounds as well. As Deputy Incident Commander Dana D’ Andrea said to the firefighters this morning, “It’s going to be a long season. It’s time now to develop the right habits, to use the White Fire as a way of training us to do things right.” Though the words were directed at those at Live Oak, they apply as well to those of us in the public. Time for us to begin doing what we need to do now to make sure we do whatever we can to prevent the next wildfire.