Fire burning in Santa Barbara County more than doubles to 4000 acres overnight – Los Angeles Times

A wildfire in Santa Barbara County that’s threatening homes and closing major highways more than doubled in size overnight to 4,000 acres, federal officials said early Friday.

Chewing through vegetation that hasn’t burned since the 1950s and pushed by 40 mph winds, the Sherpa fire crawled toward Highway 101 between El Capitan State Beach and Gaviota, forcing the California Highway Patrol to shut down the coastal route overnight.

The blaze was 5% contained, officials with the Los Padres National Forest tweeted.

On Thursday night, authorities said the fire had burned 1,700 acres and forced the CHP to again close the freeway between Winchester Canyon Road and Highway 246 in Buellton. The road reopened around 5 a.m.

The blaze began about 3:20 p.m. Wednesday near Refugio Road, the site of a devastating fire in 1955 that scorched homes and farms and burned more than 50,000 acres before it was done.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said mandatory evacuations for El Capitan, Refugio, Venadito and Las Flores canyons north of Santa Barbara remained in effect, while residents of neighboring communities such as Las Llagas, Gato, Las Varas, Dos Pueblos and Eagle canyons received evacuation warnings.

Riley Keith, a 65-year-old retiree, saw the smoke blanket the sky over El Capitan Ranch and knew it was time to go.

Keith, his wife, Yvonne, his mother, Betty Bosworth, their dog and bird, have been living out of their car since the fire grew Wednesday.

They were living at his sister’s ranch in El Capitan when mandatory evacuation orders were issued for their area Wednesday night. His sister stayed behind, while he and his family slept in an Albertsons parking lot.

“She’s tough as nails,” he said. “But you have to be when you’re running a ranch. My wife and I just couldn’t stand the smoke.”

Keith is a Santa Barbara native who has grown accustomed to wildfires in the area.

“It hasn’t burned in so long. I guess it needed to happen,” he said. “But who needs a disaster?”

The second night they lived in their car, the family went to a nearby park by Albertsons in Goleta. Keith’s sister calls him daily, keeping him updated on the fire burning around the ranch.

While the fire continues to burn, Keith and his family will stay at the Wake Center at 300 N. Turnpike Road in Goleta.

“I’m not going to stay where there’s a mandatory evacuation,” he said. “And she called me to say it was twice as smoky this morning.”

For the next few days, they are at the mercy of the “sundowner” winds.

The sundowner effect can be so destructive because of the violent clash of hot air from the Santa Ynez Mountains and the cool air off the Pacific Ocean.

Santa Barbara fire bad omen for dangerous California fire season »

During the day, the fire has somewhat predictable patterns, following topography. But when the sundowners arrive with sunset, the fire can become unpredictable and grow rapidly.

Watch as the Santa Barbara fire jumps Highway 101 and firefighters seek shelter >>

Residents in the area are all too familiar with the devastation these powerful winds can bring. In 1990, in the wake of strong winds, the Painted Cave fire burned 5,000 acres in three hours and destroyed 427 homes.

In 2008, sparked by a smoldering bonfire on a ridgeline overlooking Montecito, the 1,940-acre Tea fire damaged 219 homes.

Firefighters are going to be alert this weekend as a heat wave hits Southern California, bringing triple-digital temperatures through Monday. Forecasters said the conditions will further dry parched brush, heightening the fire risk.

The state is in its fourth year of drought, and officials say the Sherpa blaze is a grim omen for what could be a summer and fall of fire. 

This year, wildfires have burned more than 30,000 acres on state and federal land. That is about equal or slightly higher than the same period in 2015, a particularly destructive year of fire that burned  307,598 acres and hundreds of homes and left at least nine people dead.

“You add a little bit of wind and these continued drought conditions and fires are going to threaten more homes and do more damage and take more resources,” said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

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UPDATES:

9:29 a.m.: This article was updated with reactions from residents.

7:06 a.m.: This article was updated with information about the size of the fire increasing.

This article was originally published at 5:25 a.m.

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