Firefighters continued to gain ground Monday in their battle against a pair of testy wildfires still blazing on opposite ends of a Central Coast national forest.
Hundreds of residents returned to their homes in Goleta as authorities expressed cautious optimism that they had gained the upper hand against the 10,000-acre Gap fire at the southern end of Los Padres National Forest.
On the forest’s north end, along the Big Sur coast, the 2-week-old Basin Complex fire had spread to 80,000 acres by evening. However, officials said they were seeing results from creating a line of defense with bulldozers, backfires and aerial attacks using water and fire retardant.
“There’s a definite black line of defensible space down the backcountry,” Leanne Langeberg, a fire spokeswoman in Big Sur, said of the ribbon of bulldozer paths and controlled burns dividing the blaze from neighborhoods on the scenic coast.
Crews are hustling on both fires to prepare for an expected onslaught of high temperatures, low humidity and potentially gusty winds. Such conditions, which could fan flames anew, are expected to descend on the Central Coast today.
In Goleta, firefighters have managed to create a large swath of dead zone to the south of the Gap fire in Santa Barbara County, robbing the blaze of potential fuel and turning it toward a mountainous, much less populated ranching area in the northwest, officials said. Only 300 of 1,700 homes, mostly to the east and west of the fire, remained under mandatory evacuation by Monday evening.
“This is great. This is a major victory,” county Fire Capt. Eli Iskow said. But he cautioned that the fire could easily jump to other wilderness areas at the fire’s western edge if winds and temperatures rise.
Fire crews were continuing to cut lines in the area in an attempt to keep the blaze from spreading farther into the Santa Ynez Mountains. The fire, which has destroyed no homes, is 35% contained.
Smoke and heat damaged electrical transmission lines causing power outages in parts of Goleta and Santa Barbara beginning about 8 p.m. Monday.
About 36,000 households sat in darkness as repair crews waited for firefighters who were setting backfires along the main transmission line, said Nancy Williams, a spokeswoman for Southern California Edison.
Along with the higher temperatures, humidity is expected to drop to single digits and winds on the ridge tops could increase. A red flag warning, indicating a high fire hazard, is expected to be issued today and Wednesday.
“We are looking at the weather to get warmer and drier throughout the week and we want to hold on to what we have and construct more lines,” said Curtis Vincent, information officer for the Gap fire. “The plus is that the mopping up and working of that line on the south side where it pushed into Goleta a couple nights ago is going well.”
On Monday, Jeffrey Danhauer, 59, surveyed the grounds of his hilltop home. Where lush oak trees once stood in the valley surrounding his Southwestern-style home, there was now a large ring of soot and ash.
“It was like Pearl Harbor up here. . . . It went totally black into a hell storm,” said Danhauer, an audiology professor at UC Santa Barbara. “When the fire was licking the side of the house, we left.”
That was Thursday evening, and Danhauer watched with his wife in despair from the next ridge until nearly 2 a.m. Their home, which they built 10 years ago, appeared to be engulfed by the fire that raged down the hillside.
When they hiked back up to their home the next morning, they found their house intact with only a part of their vineyard destroyed. Even a road runner that occasionally drinks out of their dog’s water dish had survived. They saw it run across the yard.
“We dodged the bullet,” said Danhauer, who had taken steps to fireproof his home by clearing weeds, planting cactuses and laying down paths. Firefighters from Long Beach, Ontario and Atascadero were fighting for the homes on their street, he said. “The firemen say we did it. I say they did it. It was a team effort, I guess.”
Firefighters from the desert city of Calipatria, who have been on the road for two weeks fighting fires around California, were also on hand at the Gap fire. They said they were averaging two hours sleep a day fighting the blaze in unfamiliar terrain.
“I’m built for low and slow, not high and up,” said Jesse Llanas, 32, who has been a firefighter for 14 years. “We’re not used to hiking and elevation.”
In Monterey County, fire officials also were extending fire lines to create a barrier between flames and homes near Big Sur and the vulnerable Palo Colorado Canyon neighborhood farther north. The fire has destroyed 23 homes and is 18% contained, officials said.
“The focus is trying to make sure we get some good, solid control lines in so that when the weather does shift on us, we can hold those lines with extreme confidence,” said Jeremy Hamilton, a spokesman for the incident management team.
About 2,300 firefighters had finished 22 miles of fire lines by Monday and still had 14 miles to go.
A key showdown could come on the serrated ridgeline that meets at a rugged divide known at Botchers Gap, where fire crews hunkered down Monday under a blanket of smoke as they mopped up after a successful backfire the night before. If the fire were to jump that gap, it could come barreling down on Palo Colorado, a one-lane road lined by a dense thicket of redwoods and about 300 wood-sided homes.
“These guys did a great job up here,” said Jayd Swendseid, a Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedic who had to treat a pair of Bureau of Indian Affairs firefighters overcome by heat, smoke and fatigue. “I think they saved those homes down the road. I think they saved this whole community.”
Chief Cheryl Goetz of the Mid-Coast Fire Brigade, a volunteer department with a three-engine fire station in Palo Colorado Canyon, said the approach of the flames had brought the community together. Instead of panicking, she said, residents put their energy into clearing overgrown vegetation, cutting threatening limbs away from homes and preparing for flames everyone hopes won’t come.
“I’ve never seen this much clearing, and I’ve been here 38 years,” said Capt. Norm Cotton, a brigade volunteer for three decades.
Maria-Eugenia Diaz has spent recent days making reassuring calls to her family back in Colombia, insisting that she and her husband, chimney sweep Steve Schuster, are safe.
But at some moments, she said, she has felt anything but safe. The couple put their most important papers, photographs and heirlooms in one of their cars and parked it up the coast at Schuster’s shop, just in case.
“You just never know,” Diaz said. “This is the worst stress I’ve ever experienced. I’m scared.”
As the larger fires burn, hundreds of other blazes in the mountains surrounding the great bowl of the Central Valley are once again causing poor air quality in the region.
Times staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Steve Chawkins contributed to this report.