A wildfire near Santa Barbara continued to grow Thursday and spread deeper into the Los Padres National Forest as crews struggled to find hilltops and trailheads where they could mount a strong defense, officials said.
"The fuel, topography and weather have been very challenging, to say the least, with this fire," said Capt. Dave Zaniboni of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. "This has been a significant and challenging fire in an area notorious for structure loss."
The Sherpa fire grew in size overnight as sustained 40-mph winds pushed the blaze across areas that hadn't burned in 60 years, officials said. The flames crawled toward Highway 101 between El Capitan State Beach and Gaviota, forcing the California Highway Patrol to shut down the coastal route for a time Thursday morning.
By early evening, the fire had burned 1,700 acres and forced the California Highway Patrol to again close Highway 101 for 30 miles between Winchester Canyon Road and Highway 246 in Boulton.
Photos on social media show vehicles driving through the 101 was the center median on fire and a chopper dropping water onto the highway.
The blaze began about 3:20 p.m. Wednesday near Refugio Road, the site of a devastating fire in 1955 that scorched homes and farms and burned more than 50,000 acres before it was done.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office said mandatory evacuations for El Capitan, Refugio, Venadito and Las Flores canyons north of Santa Barbara remained in effect, while residents of neighboring communities such as Las Llagas, Gato, Las Varas, Dos Pueblos and Eagle canyons received evacuation warnings.
Among those who were evacuated late Wednesday night were Charlie and Elizabeth Hatten, who were camping at El Capitan State Beach.
The couple had heard that a small brushfire was burning to the north, and suspected things were getting worse as ash began to rain down on them later in the evening, prompting them to sleep in their car.
A park ranger woke them up and told them they had to evacuate.
"The flames looked so close," Charlie Hatten said. "You couldn't see the moon anymore."
The couple headed to Santa Barbara Community College, where the American Red Cross had cots and water for evacuees.
"There were a dozen RVs in the parking lot last night," said Gayle Robinson, a volunteer for the Red Cross. "This place can hold up to 120 people."
The fire is burning in steep, chaparral-covered terrain in Los Padres National Forest and spreading east where there are no roads and few trails, Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson said.
On Thursday, DC-10 air tankers bombarded the blaze with fire retardant. The jets were among a number of aircraft that fire crews were using in the battle. More than 400 firefighters are involved, officials said.
No injuries or structural damage has been reported, according to the U.S. Forest Service, which is directing the firefight with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
But fire officials said erratic "sundowner" winds could pose a danger to some areas such as Refugio Canyon, where 60 homes are located, and El Capitan Ranch, where 80 homes are located. And flames could pose a threat to Circle Bar B Ranch, a guest ranch in Goleta.
"We're going to get ... 35-to-40-mph winds tonight," U.S. Forest Supervising Chief Robert Baird said. "We have more resources going to the areas where we expect the fire to go."
More than 800 fire personnel are on scene and reinforcing fire lines to prevent the blaze from spreading. So far there is no containment of the fire.
An evacuation center has been opened at Wake Center, 300 N. Turnpike Road in Santa Barbara. Horses and other large animals can be taken to the Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Hatten, the evacuated camper, predicted that the Sherpa fire would be one of a number to strike this summer.
"They were expecting El Niño, and that didn't quite happen," he said. "Fires are going to get worse this season. This weather's going to make the perfect storm."
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11:44 p.m.: Updated with a 30-mile closure of the 101.
9:28 p.m.: This article was updated to include the latest closure of Highway 101.
7:45 p.m.: This article was updated to include size of fire crews, containment and other details.
6:00 p.m.: This article was updated with new acreage and additional evacuation details.
2:34 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from fire evacuees.
12:09 p.m.: This article was updated with statements from Santa Barbara County fire officials.
8:18 a.m.: This article was updated with new acreage for the fire.
7:40 a.m.: This article was updated with information about the freeway reopening.