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Could lessons from 1955 help control the Southern California blaze?

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Ron Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fires Department/Reuters

(Read caption) Fire crews work to protect structures during the Sherpa Fire at El Capitan Ranch Campground in Santa Barbara, Calif., on June 16.

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The third day of a Southern California fire has firefighters using airborne equipment to challenge a growing fire in the ranches of Santa Barbara County.

The fire started Wednesday afternoon and burned 250 acres. It then quadrupled in size over the next day and has now burned an estimated 1,400 acres, KTLA 5 Morning News reported.

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"Obviously, it's going to get bigger," Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson said Thursday night, according to KTLA 5 Morning News. "It's getting bigger as we speak."

The area is heavily overgrown because it has not burned since the 1955 Refugio Fire, but officials are pulling out data from that blaze to more strategically target firefighting efforts, Mike Hodgson reported for the Lompoc Record.

"This area is notorious for wind-driven fires," said Robert Baird, forest supervisor for Los Padres National Forest. "We're studying the behavior of [the Refugio] fire as we try to anticipate the behavior of this fire as much as we can."

Firefighters from the US Forest Service, Cal Fire, and Santa Barbara County are all responding to the what authorities are calling the Sherpa Fire, but the steep terrain and lack of roads and trails has made the fire difficult to reach. Dry brush and grass have not been thinned by fire in decades and are now burning readily, spurred by overnight winds coming in from the nearby coast.

"The fuel, topography and weather have been very challenging, to say the least, with this fire," The Santa Barbara fire department's Capt. Dave Zaniboni said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "This has been a significant and challenging fire in an area notorious for structure loss."

More than 1,200 personnel are working on the fire, and officials have already flown in one DC-10 and a lead plane, along with eight other air tankers, according to a US Forest Service update. The jets and several smaller helicopters dumped gallons of deep red fire retardant onto the growing blaze on Thursday afternoon.

The fire has no containment so far, but no injuries or buildings have been lost. Officials have issued mandatory evacuation orders for seven different locations, and three evacuation centers have been set up, including one for large animals from the area's ranches.

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Before extra equipment and personnel could arrive on Wednesday, firefighters concentrated on creating a "box" around the blaze – clearing the selected areas around the fire of brush and fuel on all sides, the Lompoc Record reported. Firefighters typically clear the brush manually or by setting their own, smaller fires.

Firefighters planned to use Highway 101 as a pre-existing fire barrier, but the Sherpa fire "jumped" the asphalt on Thursday evening, so the road has been closed. This could mean the firefighting effort could be a long one.

"We're trying to rob it of its fuel and put it out," Mr. Baird said. "There's a significant possibility it could go a long time."

The tactic was more effective around the ExxonMobil oil refinery in Las Flores Canyon. Although the site's 250 workers were evacuated on Wednesday, a number stayed on to fight to fire. Their efforts, and the structures pre-existing defenses, held through Thursday night, and it is now out of danger, the Lompoc Record reported. 


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