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Cave Fire: Firefighters battle “toughest firefighting conditions” in the world, rain on the way

Cave Fire water drop
Kacey Drescher/KEYT Photo

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - At last check, the Cave Fire, smoldering Santa Barbara county’s ridgeline, had scorched 4,330 acres and is 10 percent contained. 

“The Cave Fire is burning under some of the toughest firefighting conditions anywhere in the world,” said Jimmy Harris, Los Padres National Forest Fire Chief.

Daylight brought with it hazy, smokey skies and a fresh vantage point of the Cave Fire’s 4,300+ acres of devastation and firefighters herculean efforts to protect the community, battling flames and extreme weather.

Firefighters that arrived on scene when the flames first erupted at 4:30 p.m. Monday, were still on the front lines at 11:00 a.m. Tuesday. 

“It’s a nightmare spot right down San Marcos Pass where the wind funnels. The last time it burned was 1990 in the Painted Cave Fire so we were all ramping up as soon as we heard the start location,” said Harris.  

“It’s been quite the firefight. We’ve had winds moving upslope, downslope, across the slope. We had firefighters engaging in structure defense being pushed out and run out and then turn around and come back and get back right on those structures,” said Battalion Chief Anthony Stornetta. Stornetta even called the firefight “messy” due to the 45 mph wind gusts. 

With engines from Monterey to San Bernardino on the front lines, crucial air support whirled above all day as hand crews were hard at work trying to create a fire break and cut down close to 30-year-old fuels. Officials expect the fire to be staffed heavily until the end of the year. 

“The winds are onshore so it’s starting to push it back up top, so that’s the primary concern today. We have the air tankers working up top East Camino Cielo trying to paint that roadway up there so it doesn’t push over the north side of the hill and burn into the forest,” said Mike Eliason, Santa Barbara County Fire Department Public Information Officer. 

Officials say close to 5,500 people evacuated but Eric Fultz stayed behind to water down his San Marcos Pass property. “Waiting for embers, which will probably happen tonight,” said Fultz. 

Fultz lived through 1990’s Painted Cave Fire and knows just how unpredictable these winds can be. 

“As that cold front approaches, those winds are going to shift around and be more erratic,” said Eliason. 

Standing watch over his beloved community, Michael Miller with the Mountain Ember Team, which formed after the Painted Cave Fire Department disbanded, will also be ready. 

“It’s just been an honor to work with these people and to see how people are coming together in spite of any differences. We just need to help each other through this,” said Miller 

Santa Barbara County Fire Department Public Information Officer, Captain Daniel Bertucelli said Tuesday night’s incoming rainfall will help put out the smoldering hot spots but it will create hazards for firefighters working those conditions. 

“As far as slides go, we do have rain that will be falling in an area that’s a fresh burn scar. We do have concerns but with the amount of rain that’s coming in over the duration we’re more concerned about small rock slides along the 154 area,” said Bertucelli. 

During a Tuesday morning news conference, Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig thanked the community for their resilience and for creating defensible space. 

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown notes that the power shut off to the area was not the result of power utility Public Safety Power Shutoff, rather a judgment call first responders made from a safety perspective. 

So far, only one uninhabited structure has been destroyed and no one has been hurt. 

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Kacey Drescher

Kacey Drescher is a reporter/anchor at KEYT|KCOY|KKFX.

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