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Sherpa Fire updates: Highway 101 closed; Mandatory evacuations, air quality warnings in place

Firefighters take shelter behind the engine as flames advance on them along near El Capitan State Beach on Thursday, June 16, 2016.
Firefighters take shelter behind the engine as flames advance on them along near El Capitan State Beach on Thursday, June 16, 2016.
Santa Barbara Fire Dept.
Firefighters take shelter behind the engine as flames advance on them along near El Capitan State Beach on Thursday, June 16, 2016.
A tractor-trailer drives past flames in the center divider of US 101 at El Capitan State Park on Thursday, June 16, 2016.
Santa Barbara County Fire Dept.
Firefighters take shelter behind the engine as flames advance on them along near El Capitan State Beach on Thursday, June 16, 2016.
Santa Barbara City Fire Engineer Aaron Vaughn looking over the nearby refinery at the Sherpa Fire, posted Thursday, June 16, 2016.
Moses Romo/Santa Barbara City Fire Department
Firefighters take shelter behind the engine as flames advance on them along near El Capitan State Beach on Thursday, June 16, 2016.
This photo provided by Los Padres Forest Aviation and KEYT-TV shows a wildfire burning in Los Padres National Forest, north of Santa Barbara, on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, in Goleta, Calif. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office says mandatory evacuations have been ordered for Refugio Canyon, Venadito Canyon and Las Flores Canyon, which includes an Exxonmobil refinery.
Mark Nunez/Los Padres Forest Aviation/KEYT-TV via AP


A wildfire spurred by strong winds continued to burned brush north of Santa Barbara, closing both lanes of Highway 101 as it crept toward the ocean. Hundreds of campers, some homes and a refinery were forced to evacuate Wednesday. Air quality was poor in the area.

This story is no longer being updated. Get Friday's updates on the Sherpa Fire here.

Evacuations & closures | Traffic | Air qualityWeather 

The Sherpa Fire broke out about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in Los Padres National Forest. By around midnight, it had expanded to 1,100 acres or nearly 2 square miles, Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Dave Zaniboni said.

Fire Tracker: Sherpa Fire in Santa Barbara County

This map was posted late Thursday afternoon, showing the outline of where the fire had burned thus far:

Santa Barbara County posted this map late Thursday afternoon showing the area burned by the Sherpa Fire on June 16, 2016.
Santa Barbara County posted this map late Thursday afternoon showing the area burned by the Sherpa Fire on June 16, 2016.
Santa Barbara County

Evacuations & closures

Hundreds of people were forced to evacuate area campgrounds because of the fire's surge, Zaniboni said.

Mandatory evacuations were also ordered for El Capitan Canyon, El Capitan Ranch, El Capitan State Beach, Refugio State Beach, Refugio Canyon, Venadito Canyon and Las Flores Canyon, which includes an ExxonMobil refinery, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office said.

Residents living between El Capitan Canyon and Farren Road were warned to be ready to leave if given the order to evacuate. Here's what you need to know if you're asked to prepare to evacuate. 

Zaniboni said he didn't have a specific number of residences or people affected, but the sheriff's office noted that reverse 911 calls were sent to more than 500 phone lines.

The American Red Cross has one shelter open at the Wake Center at 300 N. Turnpike Rd. and another at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, according to the sheriff's office.

About 50 horses were evacuated from a ranch and taken to a shelter that has been set up at the county fairgrounds.

The oil refinery, meanwhile, has a cleared buffer zone around it, Zaniboni said.

"The refinery has fire around it and companies in place protecting it," he added.

ExxonMobil spokesman Todd Spitler said the company has evacuated non-essential employees, and those that remain are there to help with fire protection.

"Our primary concern is for the safety of our employees, contractors and the environment," Spitler said.

Traffic

The 101 Freeway was closed in both directions Thursday night after high winds pushed the fire closer to traffic. 

Tweet: Highway 101

Lanes had been closed Wednesday night but reopened at 7:15 a.m. on Thursday after winds died down. 

Early Thursday afternoon, the fire was burning a quarter mile away from the 101 near the campground at Refugio State Beach, according to a tweet from Santa Barbara County.

The area around Refugio State Beach and the campgrounds located there. The fire was burning a quarter mile from the 101 Freeway on Thursday afternoon, near the campground.
The area around Refugio State Beach and the campgrounds located there. The fire was burning a quarter mile from the 101 Freeway on Thursday afternoon, near the campground.
Google Maps

 

Winds in the area sometimes blow down the hillsides toward the highway at night, Caltrans' Colin Jones told KPCC, but winds had been blowing away from the highway Thursday afternoon.

Firefighters were staging Thursday at Dos Pueblos High School, which led to road closures at Cathedral Oaks at Glen Annie and Alameda

Air quality

The Sherpa Fire led to an air quality warning being issued for southern Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, with smoke from the fire impacting some areas. According to a press release from the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District:

"Smoke from the Sherpa Fire is impacting local air quality. Levels of smoke and particles, and areas impacted, will vary depending on winds and on the containment of the fire. Some smoke is blowing offshore and may come onshore if conditions change. Other areas of Santa Barbara County could be affected depending on winds," the release stated.

The air quality warning was scheduled to remain in effect through Sunday unless conditions change, according to the release.

The agency offered the following advice for dealing with the poor air quality:

High winds 

Winds began to pick up late Thursday afternoon. As of 6 p.m., Refugio Hills had increasing northwest winds gusting up to 34 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Zaniboni said earlier Thursday that by early in the day the winds had eased and it was cooler, aiding crews. But he warned about an expected return of heat and strong winds later in the day.

Video: Helicopter airdrop

Wednesday afternoon, the area's Sundowner winds gusted to nearly 40 mph as they pushed the flames through canyons full of heavy brush.

"The wind picked up significantly,"overnight, Zaniboni told The Associated Press in a telephone interview early Thursday.

Witness: 'We just kind of assumed the worst and prepared for it'

One family at the popular El Capitan State Beach decided to leave earlier Wednesday before campgrounds were evacuated.

"It's completely smoked out up there so we decided to take the kids and get out of there," Ted Bayard told KEYT-TV from his driver's seat. "We decided instead of waiting until 10 o'clock tonight we'd get out before the sun went down."

Michael Lewis of El Capitan told Take Two that he and his wife had moved their horses to safety when the fire was still small but they heard how quickly it was spreading on Wednesday.

"It's just one of those things, with all of the fuel on the ground up there — there's not much they would be able to do, especially with those winds, so we just kind of assumed the worst and prepared for it," Lewis said.

When they got the order to evacuate, Lewis said they grabbed their dog, their wine, his wife's wedding dress, photo albums and other things they felt could not be replaced.

"It was actually a very interesting exercise," he said. "You don't really think about doing anything like that, you know, and you're just putting intrinsic value on things as you're walking through the house, and it was very surprising what I ended up with."

Lewis noted there hadn't been a fire in that area in his lifetime but said he knows to expect them as part of fire season.

"There's so many hills and canyons, and just dry brush and underbrush up here, that it really doesn't take much. You know, if somebody's burning trash on their ranch or throws a cigarette out the window, it just goes. And it's like gasoline," he said.

This story has been updated.