Zaca Fire Updates - August 2007

Here is the h istory of our monitoring of the Zaca Fire in the summer of 2007. As it turned out, the fire came no nearer than eight miles from the campus, and never ended up becoming an imminent threat. The Risk Management office participated in official briefings to stay abreast of developments.

Scroll down for past posts and backstory.

Update for Mon 8/27/7

This could be the last update; and in fact will be if any further developments have no appreciable significance for our community.

The Zaca fire is 100% contained along the southern border. It’s still spotting in the northeast near Hwy 33, but higher humidities and aggressive fire suppression have resulted in minimal change to the fire’s perimeter in recent days.

The workforce has dropped from nearly 3,000 to just over 2,000 as resources get redeployed to other fires. The County Emergency Operations Center has closed down, and the Red Cross is shifting its attention to the flooding in other states.

The fire has consumed over 240,000 acres and the response has cost well over $105 million. The fact that it threatened us without actually biting us, though, resulted in a terrific learning experience for many, many people and agencies. The extended timeframe enabled the working out of numerous inter-agency role and relationship issues that will help a future response to be yet more nimble and effective. Even we at Westmont will enjoy a number of the preparedness blessings that came from the “exercise”–so there’s a silver lining in all those smoke columns!

Thank you for your interest, cooperation, and support these last few weeks. (And weren’t we all relieved that the south flank “went black” [as the firefighters say] before new students and their parents arrived!?)

Update for Wed 8/22/7

As of this morning (Wed 8/22) the Zaca fire is almost fully contained on the southern flank, and the fire operations are starting to demobilize at both the Live Oak camp (near Cachuma Lake) and the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Most of those resources will move to the northern flank, where the fire remains in remote territory and does not threaten the Montecito area. Smoke from that region may blow our way but does not represent a fire danger for us.

Until further develoments may affect us locally, I do not expect to issue daily updates in coming days.

Update for Tue 8/21/7

Fire crews are within a half mile of closing the southern line around the Zaca fire, and they expect to be able to extinguish its threat to the south coast within about 24 hours (subject, as always, to weather and numerous other unknowns and uncontrollables). Resources are already being routed around the fire to the north side where containment is still days or weeks away, but where populated areas are few and far between. Today’s satellite thermal images show a much more favorable profile than they did just four days ago.

Update for Mon 8/20/7

Current Threat - The Zaca Fire has been contained along a key line covering over half its eastern flank. Only the section burning above the Pendola area today has the potential to affect Westmont, and Montecito Fire Department is confident we will have ample time to respond if the fire there overtakes the defenses in place. They remain in Aware status, with less cause for concern than we faced last Friday. The fire has burned over 215,000 acres to date. It remains over eight miles away from us at its nearest point.

Air Quality - Westerly winds have been blowing the smoke and ash eastward for several days. That’s good for us but is affecting people in Bakersfield and other inland communities. Mount Whitney was shrouded in Zaca smoke last week on an otherwise clear day. We may again get our turn to see the smoke if the wind shifts back our way, so as you have occasion to talk with parents of incoming or returning students, you can reassure them that the smoke they may see crawling over the Camino Cielo ridge above us does not represent an immediate threat of fire.

Response Plan - Employees, students and parents all need to know that if wildland fire heads our way, we’ll gather at the gym. If there’s time for an orderly departure, we’ll proceed from there to a shelter that Red Cross will open for us (location TBD). If there’s not time to move a mass of people, we’ll “shelter in place” in the gym according to a carefully designed plan that has been drilled with and reviewed by Montecito Fire, Santa Barbara Sheriff, California Highway Patrol, Office of Emergency Services, Red Cross, SB City Fire, and others.

Recent Map - This map shows Westmont at the yellow spot in the lower center, with eight miles to the bright red line where the fire burns today. Firefighters did an amazing job this weekend of holding the eastern flank and quelling the fire along the black perimiter line along the right side of the image.

Update #2 for Fri 8/17/7

A little rumor control for you: While I was on the line with a liaison at the county’s Emergency Operations Center moments ago I was able to overhear the announcement that although there has been discussion about possible evacuation warnings, they have not yet been determined necessary. The warnings being considered were for the very few residents on the north side of Camino Cielo. There are currently no evacuation warnings in effect or immediately contemplated for the South Coast area.

The fire does continue to grow, and I will be monitoring its progress over the weekend in order to supplement whatever else you may learn from official sources. If there is a significant change in status I will be sure to let you know as soon as possible.

Update for Fri 8/17/7

If the stages are Asleep, Aware, Alert, Alarm and Action, we remain at Aware–with a little movement overnight in the direction of Alert. The “inversion layer” that has pressed the smoke down into our nostrils has also reduced visibility and thus hampered the firefighting effort to some extent. It is expected to start lifting today.

Resources are bring brought back to the south coast as the fire has moved marginally past the previous closest distance away. Five strike teams are being staged at Toro Canyon Park as the primary threat has now shifted somewhat east of us, and you may see bulldozers off the side of the 101 just south of Carpinteria as they’re being brought nearby in case of need. Romero Canyon Rd is being widened to the top of the ridge and Edison power-line roads are being cleared, both to enable easier access for heavy equipment.

We are encouraged to be mindful that power interruptions are possible if the fire heads much farther south; it’s still about three miles north of the over-the-ridge power lines. Remember also to keep your car’s gas tank as full as possible so you can remain mobile in case stations can’t pump their gas.

In the image below, as of midnite Thursday Red=burning; Orange=recent; Black=older; Yellow=Wednesday nite perimeter.

Update for Thu 8/16/7

The fire is making a bid our way, but there’s no immediate cause for concern. The following is a quote from Montecito Fire’s alert this morning:

- - - - -

The Montecito Fire Protection District is in an elevated state of awareness due to the southern progression the fire made yesterday and last night.

The US Forest Service may need to utilize backfiring as an offensive tool to prevent the southerly spread of the ZACA fire. This would bring the fire line closer to the Montecito community.

There are contingency lines behind the Camino Cielo ridge, but in an effort to provide an additional contingency line between the projected backfire line and our community, there will be hand crews, dozers and masticators improving existing and old lines that exist between the Camino Cielo Ridge and the Montecito community.

Update for Wed 8/15/7

Favorable weather continues, with higher humidity and a cooling trend expected

Unless something drastic changes over the next several days, I will suspend the daily updates and take a “no news is good news” stance. If a threat develops, as a MERRAG response team member I will be among the first to know and I will pass that information to you as quickly as possible.

As time allows and the kiosk at Cold Spring School is open, stop by and get updates there in the meantime. Sometimes the kiosk is staffed with volunteers who can give you the basics, but often fire officials are on duty and can answer more in-depth questions you may have. The kiosks (there and at Montecito Village) are scheduled to remain open most daytime hours thru the coming weekend–though they may close intermittently when emergency calls divert the staffing.

The front-country “strike teams” from other counties have all headed home but they remain on alert for a quick run back to Santa Barbara if the Zaca menace returns. During the days they spent here in the last week they’ve become familiar with the roads and terrain, so they’ll be freshly knowledgeable and ready to get right to work.

You can assume a big, scary-looking column of smoke, or another “snowstorm” or red cloud blanket, is benign unless it is clearly being generated from this side of the Camino Cielo ridge. In that event, don’t wait for a Zaca Fire update; it will then or soon be time to head to the gym.

The Red Flag Alert is expected to expire today and the Las Barrancas gate will be closed accordingly.

Update as of Tue 8/14/7

The situation remains quite stable, and the threat to the South Coast from the Zaca Fire continues to subside gradually.

As you’ll see from the Public Safety announcement this morning about the local Red Flag Alert status, Zaca is not the only potential hazard we face. Your personal vigilance in monitoring for suspicious activity and for signs of fire can be of great value in preventing and responding, and is much appreciated.

Tom’s memo noted that the Las Barrancas gate will be open at the request of the Montecito Fire Department. Speaking with my CUP Compliance hat on, I hasten to note that this does not mean any traffic other than normal is authorized to use that access except in event of an actual emergency. Thank you for respecting this constraint. It’s essential that we continue to warrant our neighbors’ confidence that we will live by the conditions permitting our use of this wonderful property.

Switching back to my Risk Management hat: you may be interested to learn that the Zaca Fire is now listed at about 40% contained. It was in the 70s previously. How did that change, one may ask? It’s because they’ve re-estimated the eventual full boundary of the fire after it reaches the lines they are confident can be defended. Thus the 120+ miles of “closed” line represents a smaller ratio of the new expected final total.

Update as of Mon 8/13/7

The fire had burned 84,000 acres as of Sunday morning. As of Monday morning it’s 95,000 acres and going strong–a big day yesterday. With high temperatures and low humidity the fire is expected to grow in large chunks again today.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the menacing edge on the southeast corner has been contained. While the Zaca Fire’s immediate threat has been significantly reduced, it has not been eliminated. Predicted winds from the north could still press it toward us, so we need to remain on alert. But the extra days of preparation in the last week have enabled firefighters to strengthen the defensive line along the Camino Cielo ridge above us, and on contingency lines between there and the fire front.

Here’s the map produced for the 6am briefing this morning, showing Sunday’s 8-hour growth in red shading.

Update as of Sat 8/11/7

Friday was a good day in the fire-fight. The southeastern slopover was contained, and no further threat to the populated areas developed. Today’s weather seems likely to be favorable to the management of the fire.

Please note the College’s Crisis Hotline number: 888/565-7911 (hosted in Indiana so it won’t be affected by wildfire or quake). If for any reason our phone system or servers go down, this line will provide information pertinent to the situation.

Update as of Fri 8/10/7

First-hand from 6am briefing at base camp headquarters:

Key info - A small “slopover” (fire that broke through the containment line) near the southeast “finger” will get top priority attention today. The fire is poised to make a major run today in the back-country and officials have conceded that they’re not going to be able to stop it in the deep wilderness, so they’re focusing their efforts on strengthening the defensive lines closer to the urban areas. As a result, many thousands of additional acres will burn, but people and structures will be much better protected in the long run. Edison officials have decided they will not turn off the power grid, and will instead let the fire burn under the lines. This will keep power constantly available unless the fire takes it down, and they’re willing to take the chance that the fire might not do so.

A few “inside scoop” tidbits for those further interested:

Weather � High pressure building. Humidity around 12%. Temperatures expected in 90’s.

Fire Behavior � Fire will get active earlier in the day due to warmer, drier weather. Slopover is in very steep, rugged terrain, with a lot of yuccas which when ignited act like rolling bowling balls of fire. Expect spectacularly high flame lengths on the upper eastern flank.

Air Operations � Some aircraft have had to be redirected to other fires more directly threatening populated areas.

Safety � Re-opening of Hwy 154 means crews will face traffic issues that they’ve not had to deal with in recent days, so they’re urged to be extra careful.

Briefing Map for Fri 8/10/7

This map shows what fire officials are seeing this morning as they send crews out for the day. The portion of wilderness to the right of the active red-lined edge of the shaded burn area is expected to burn without constraint for many miles and could nearly double the total size of the fire.

Update as of Thu 8/9/7

Quite a lot of burning since last report, but mostly on the northeastern corner where it is not threatening us. The southeast “finger” which is of most concern for Montecito remains fairly stable.

This fire remains probably two days’ burn away from us even if it breached all the defenses and was in a big hurry south. So if it turns our way we’ll still have a good amount of time to get braced for it. It’s also probably over a day away from the power lines, so electrical interruptions are not yet imminent.

Blessings to all who have offered their homes if needed.

Update as of Wed 8/8/7

The fire and the weather were both very well-behaved today. An enormous effort continues among all affected agencies to plan for the worst case, as I witnessed first-hand today while on duty in the County’s Emergency Operations Center. The officials take very seriously the fact that the blaze could head south, but as of the end of today the fire is marginally less threatening than it was yesterday–so that’s progress.

Last evening (Tue 8/7/7) a neighborhood meeting sponsored by the Las Barrancas Homeowners Association (the faculty housing development) created an opportunity for the college to educate over 30 non-Westmont attendees about the progress of the fire and about Westmont’s preparedness plans and provisions.

Please stay alert, and continue your home and work readiness efforts.

Update as of Tue 8/7/7

The fire continues to burn and is now about 8 miles due north of us. It is not currently an imminent threat, but is being watched closely. Its behavior is unpredictable, and depends mostly on weather conditions.

Fire officials have established “decision points” which work something like this: if the fire closely approaches the Santa Ynez River, they will consider issuing an “evacuation warning” for Montecito. In that event, the community will be alerted by various means to pack their bags and be ready to depart. If the fire jumps that line and starts up the backside of the ridge behind us, an “evacuation order” may be issued, in which case law enforcement will start ensuring everyone is actually leaving the area.

What that means for us on campus: Even before the “warning” stage, we should start thinking about what property we may need to guard. If you have valuable papers or personal articles in your office (documents, photos, keys, etc) that should be protected from fire, you don’t need to start packing them yet, but have in mind the intent to do so. If we get a “warning” then it would be prudent to move such things to your car or other vehicle. If we get an “order” we’ll need to leave, if here; and won’t be able to return to campus if already away. If the warnings/orders are issued after hours we will all have limited capability to respond, so use your best judgment as to how that could affect your own workspace, duties, and readiness plans.

A DIRECT THREAT TO THE CAMPUS IS UNLIKELY BUT CONCEIVABLE. We are monitoring the situation, and are in frequent contact with emergency management officials. As the situation unfolds we will use email and if necessary voicemail to advise you of significant developments. Stay tuned.

Zaca Fire Backstory

The Zaca fire was started on July 4, 2007 by sparks from welding being done on a pump at a ranch just northwest of Zaca Lake. It burned mostly east and a little south for three weeks, and was nearly trapped by July 31st. However, weather, terrain and fuel conditions conspired to help it jump the containment line, and the ensuing fire raged closer to more populated areas. On Friday August 3rd it surged southward and crested the mountain ridge one sees across the Santa Ynez River valley when driving the San Marcos Pass highway.

Over that weekend, Troy Harris, the college’s risk manager, was able to begin monitoring the inside scoop by serving as government liaison for the Red Cross. That role, in combination with his position as president of the Montecito Emergency Response & Recovery Action Group (MERRAG;, has enabled him to bring to the campus community the direct, current information found on the later entries.