White Fire under control

Crews Completing, Improving Fire Lines; Mopping Up Hot Spots

By the numbers

Location: 6 miles north of Santa Barbara

Size: 1,984 acres as of Wednesday

Percent contained: 90 percent expected by 6 p.m. Wednesday

Estimated cost: $1.5 million

Resources (Committed for Wednesday): 6 air tankers, 2 air attack planes, 12 helicopters, 14 crews, 33 engines, 13 bulldozers, 8 water tenders.

Personnel: 842

Injuries: 0

Damage: 0 structures lost, 1 Forest Service structure damaged, 2 vehicles destroyed.

Source: U.S. Forest Service

Despite warm temperatures, low humidity, high winds and lots of bone-dry fuel, firefighters Wednesday got their arms around the White Fire in the Santa Ynez Mountains.

The wind-whipped wildfire that started Monday afternoon and exploded to more than 1,000 acres in a two and a half hour span was 90-percent contained Wednesday night with firefighters holding fire lines and mopping up hot spots, according to the Central Coast Interagency Incident Management Team.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

The fire that burned the Paradise Road area along the Santa Ynez River claimed 1,984 acres, damaged only one building and destroyed two vehicles. Those numbers are surprisingly low given the ferocity of the wind-driven flames.  The numbers were also lower than the management team released on Tuesday evening, when it announced 2,025 acres had burned.

“This is down a little bit due to more accurate mapping of the fire,” said Santa Barbara Fire Capt. David Sadecki, who split time between the White Fire and the Olive Fire, which erupted near the intersection of highways 154 and 246 around 3:25 p.m. Tuesday.

Firefighters were able to get the upper hand on the fire late Monday and all day Tuesday, and fire lines were built around 80 percent of the blaze. Being able to contain the fire in such inhospitable conditions surprised firefighters. 

“With the wind events we had, we sure were (surprised). Yesterday was a critical time for us given the wind conditions. We still had some lines we needed to get put in,” said Manny Madrigal, spokesman for the management team.  Much of the credit for containing the blaze in such short order goes to the aggressive way the management team fought it. Six air tankers, a dozen helicopters and 842 people attacked the stubborn fire.

One of those tankers is a BAe 146 owned by Neptune Aviation Services that has been stationed for the past 10 days at the Santa Maria Air Attack Base at the Central Coast Jet Center.  The British aircraft made four retardant drops Tuesday on the White Fire and another drop to help draw the fire line at the Olive Fire. The jet drops 3,000 gallons of retardant on each run, significantly more than the plane it’s replacing, the Lockheed P-2.

The six air tankers repeatedly dropped retardant on the fire Tuesday until being grounded by high winds around 2:30 p.m. Helicopters remained in the air, dropping water until the end of the day.

“It was quite turbulent. A lot of times, the winds get so high it doesn’t make sense to put retardant on that. When the winds get above 40 knots at the fire, nature is going to win,” said pilot Christian Holm. “We were on hold because it was so turbulent. But by then the guys and gals on the ground were getting a pretty good foothold on it.”  Holm, who worked in the Poway and Central Santa Cruz County fire departments before working his way into wildland firefighting, is one of the few pilots who knows what doing hand-to-hand combat with a fire is like. He said part of the reason the White Fire blew up so quickly is the conditions on the ground.

Dry, tangled chaparral fueled walls of flame 50 feet high with some of the flames leaping from the tops of oaks that cover the foothills.  “We’ve had minimal precipitation throughout the course of the winter, and so we’re getting a little bit larger fire behavior than we would expect for this time of year. You’d usually see this kind of flame length in July or so,” Holm said.

Firefighters spent Wednesday building, completing, improving and holding fire lines around the blaze.  Winds remained steady from 18 to 25 mph throughout Wednesday with gusts to 33 mph recorded at the Santa Ynez Valley Airport. The National Weather Service reduced the wind warning it had issued earlier in the week to a wind advisory through 9 p.m. Wednesday.  Although the wind wasn’t responsible for keeping the air tankers on the ground Wednesday, that’s where they remained.

5/30/13  •  Brian Bullock/bbullock@santamariatimes.com