July 7, 2008

2 Flanks of Goleta Fire Secured

By Tom Kisken, Ventura County Star, Calif.

Jul. 7--Firefighters secured much of the southern and eastern flanks of the raging Gap fire near Goleta on Sunday, but worry about hotter temperatures starting today that could be followed by winds and lightning by the end of the week.

"I think they're still just digging in," said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Debbie Becker, who was asked if a turning point had been reached. "Definitely not."

The fire in Los Padres National Forest had burned nearly 10,000 acres by Sunday evening, a growth of more than 1,000 acres over a day. About 2,800 homes were at risk, but none had been lost and only four outbuildings had been lost since the fire's start July 1.

The majority of evacuation orders had been reduced to warnings. The fire was about 30 percent contained Sunday night.

Although careful not to minimize the challenges ahead, Becker said Sunday was a good day for about 1,200 firefighters racing to take advantage of the moist air currents. They dumped 100,000 gallons of water on the fire from heli-tankers. Half a dozen air tankers added 45 loads of retardant.

"The southern (part) of the fire is lined completely, which is a wonderful thing," she said, noting that the fire is also largely contained on the eastern flank except for a small region that is being allowed to burn out.

But the fire is growing in the northwest, with flames shooting 40 feet in the air. Firefighters, already struggling to fight fire in steep, rocky terrain, are worried about a forecast that is expected to bring furnacelike heat by Wednesday.

"In some of our valley and foothill locations, we could see our temperatures exceed 100 degrees, even 105," said Todd Hall, senior forecaster for the National Weather Service.

There's a slight chance of rain late in the week, Hall said. But that might not help firefighters because it could come in the form of thunderstorms.

"It brings lightning and high winds," Becker said.

Some people in Goleta said the weather and work of the firefighters helped subside worries at least for the day.

"People are thinking it's not too bad," Amber Benavides said at a Hollywood Video in Goleta. "The wind is pushing it back into the mountains. There's not a lot of panic today. People are just coming in and getting movies."

Investigators suspect that the fire was human-caused. The Forest Service has asked for public help in determining how it was set.

Sunday's cooler weather also helped firefighters advance on a 2-week-old blaze that has destroyed 22 homes in Big Sur, at the northern end of Los Padres.

"The fog held on a little bit stronger than was originally anticipated, which was great for the crews out working on the lines," said Sarah Gibson, spokeswoman for the command post in charge of fighting that blaze.

The improved weather did have some drawbacks. Fog made the takeoff of firefighting aircraft more difficult and hampered efforts to start controlled burns to clear brush ahead of the advancing wildfire, Gibson said.

The fire, which has charred 113 square miles, was 11 percent contained, a slight jump from the day before. Fire officials said crews were burning out brush between the fire's edge and Big Sur's famed restaurants and hotels, and cutting more lines to halt flames creeping down from ridge tops.

"The biggest challenge is whether the containment lines that they're building now and continuing to improve are going to hold as the fire approaches," said Rolf Larsen, spokesman for the Forest Service.

Wildfires have burned more than 800 square miles of land and destroyed at least 69 homes throughout California, mainly in the northern part of the state, in the past two weeks. One firefighter died of a heart attack while digging fire lines.

About 1,400 fires have been contained, but more than 330 still burned out of control Sunday morning.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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