Fire commander says Gap fire still a 'gorilla'

Times Staff Writers

Weary firefighters made progress Sunday against two California wildfires near the towns of Goleta and Big Sur, exploiting a lull in winds before rising temperatures and possible lightning storms arrive later this week.

After two weeks of little gain, fire officials in Monterey County said a series of backfires started overnight helped reinforce containment lines between flames and homes near Big Sur and a Boy Scout camp farther north. Firefighters said the 74,985-acre blaze, burning in the Los Padres National Forest, was 11% contained by Sunday morning, up from 5% the previous evening.

Meanwhile, the Gap fire, burning in Santa Barbara County, grew overnight by nearly 700 acres, primarily on the brushy and undeveloped west end of the blaze. The fire has charred 9,924 acres since it started Tuesday night, fire officials said at 6 p.m. Sunday. Officials said crews were able to largely solidify the lines along the eastern and southern edges of the fire, where most of the homes at risk are located. The fire was 30% contained.

"This is still a gorilla," said Wally Bennett of the Northern Rockies National Incident Management Team, the Gap fire's new incident commander, at a 6 a.m. briefing Sunday. "We have a lot of work to do on it and a lot of bad country to work on it in. It's just one step at a time."

Winds and humidity levels on both fires eased slightly overnight, and temperatures remained in the mid-80s and mid-90s. But fire officials were concerned about a heat wave forecast to strike the Central Coast on Tuesday, raising temperatures on Wednesday and Thursday into the 90s and 100s.

A possible monsoonal flow could bring lightning as well as more erratic winds, said Rich Thompson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Fire officials said the Basin Complex fire, near Big Sur, was pressing against containment lines in the south, and in the east was moving toward the narrow gravel road that leads to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, where a group of monks remained behind to fight the flames.

More than 2,200 firefighters were joined by a fleet of 19 water-dropping helicopters and a DC-10 jet in Big Sur. Fire officials plan to employ a large Canadian water-dropping plane, the Martin Mars tanker aircraft, which is billed as the world's biggest such craft.

Hastening the fire's spread are more than 100,000 highly flammable dead oak trees that lace the Big Sur area's evergreen forests. The trees are the legacy of sudden oak death, a pathogen blamed for the massive die-off of tanoaks, coast live oaks and California black oaks, beginning in 1995, along the state's central and northern coasts.

"They're added fuel to the fire," said forest ecologist Lloyd Williams, the botanist for Los Padres National Forest.

Adding to the danger, the dead trees can topple as fires sweep the forests, putting firefighters' lives at risk.

The Gap fire, the state's top priority, started July 1 about 5:45 p.m. near Lizard's Mouth on West Camino Cielo. Fire officials said they believe the blaze was "human-caused" and asked anyone with information about how it started to call (805) 961-5710.

More than 1,200 firefighters, aided by water-dropping helicopters, battled the Gap blaze, which has destroyed four outbuildings. Exhausted firefighters have had little respite over the last few days, working in some cases with only a few hours' sleep to get ahead of the blaze and protect homes.

"So far they're holding up," Bennett said. "But the bigger concern is how early this season started in California and the length of the season left to go."

Five hot-shot crews and four other crews, roughly 180 firefighters, were en route to the fire. Some will spend five days before heading to battle flames in the Big Sur area.

The Gap fire has proved to be particularly difficult because of the steep and rocky terrain in the Santa Ynez Mountains and canyon areas, the very dry conditions and the 15- to 20-foot-high brush, which has not burned since the 1955 Refugio fire that swept in from the west through the Los Padres National Forest.

Water drops and fire retardant have been unable to permeate the thick growths of brush, merely sprinkling the tops as fire burns through the lower layers, officials said. The last measurable rain in the area was more than two months ago.

South-slope winds called sundowners that sent the fire racing toward Goleta earlier this week continued to weaken Saturday night. This allowed firefighters to secure and widen the southern edge of the fire break, about 3 1/2 miles from Goleta. The eastern fire break was largely completed Sunday, and overnight, firefighters planned to create back burns down from the northern fire break.

As the winds shift and firefighters make small gains on the blaze, authorities have changed their evacuation notices.

On Sunday, about 800 to 1,000 homes were on mandatory evacuation, mostly to the east and west of the fire. Authorities have warned up to 3,000 other households in the foothills of Goleta and unincorporated Santa Barbara County to be prepared to leave at a moment's notice. For information about evacuations call (805) 681-5195.

"People are getting a little comfortable and complacent, thinking that we're safe and out of the woods," said Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow. "But the fire could hook around and come back in two directions out of the east and west." Certain areas are "still on warning for that reason. . . . We're not out of the woods by any means yet."

Officials are searching for a fire line they can draw down the western edge of the blaze, where the most fire growth is anticipated.

In those remote canyons, there are a few scattered houses but mostly brush.

At one point over the last two weeks, 1,781 fires -- mostly caused by lightning strikes -- raged throughout California, burning more than 597,900 acres since June 20. More than 80% of the fires have been fully contained, but 330 continued to burn Sunday.

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

eric.bailey@latimes.com

Times staff writers Deborah Schoch and Jack Leonard contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday, July 08, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction Big Sur fire: A map with an article in Monday's Section A about the Basin Complex fire, as well as maps of the fire in other recent editions, showed Big Sur's Nepenthe Restaurant on the east side of Highway 1. It is on the west side of the highway.
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