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Zaca fire to reach Ventura County in days

Fire officials say they will have a chance to make a stand against the blaze that has burned 116,000 acres in Los Padres National Forest.

August 16, 2007|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

The 116,700-acre Zaca fire in Santa Barbara County continues to consume large swaths of wilderness and open space on its eastward march and is expected to cross into Ventura County within a week, officials said Wednesday.

Teams of firefighters are battling the flames on two fronts, along the Sierra Madre ridge in Los Padres National Forest to the north and on the southern edge above Montecito and Santa Barbara.

"They have begun the Sierra Madre ridge back burns and are taking them section by section, day by day, night by night and moving east," said Robert Rainwater, a fire information officer for the national forest. "It will take several days, but they will eventually cross the Ventura County line."

Plumes of smoke from the back fires can already be seen along California 33 northwest of Ojai, as crews in the north work to slow the blaze, setting back burns and using giant bulldozers to construct fire lines.

At the same time, commanders at the fire's southern edge, near more populated areas, have launched a more direct attack, employing more than two dozen helicopters and air tankers, including a specially outfitted DC-10, which can load and drop up to 12,000 gallons of water at a time.

"So far, due to luck with the weather and progress of the crews and air tanker drops on the southeast corner, they've been able to make considerable progress," Rainwater said. "The crews have been able to get a lot more accomplished than originally projected."

The Zaca fire started July 4 north of Los Olivos when a ranch worker was grinding an irrigation pipe and a stray spark ignited some dry grass. Since then, the blaze has slowly advanced southeast toward the city of Santa Barbara and western Ventura County.

Since Monday morning, when the fire gained momentum, through 8 p.m. Wednesday, more than 22,000 additional acres were charred.

Fighting the blaze has cost $73.4 million, but so far no homes have been lost. As of Wednesday evening, the fire was 67% contained.

About 2,900 firefighting personnel remain part of the massive operation. Ventura County officials said they will be ready whenever the fire jumps the county line.

Tom Kruschke, spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Protection District, said more than 65 county fire personnel, as well as helicopters, bulldozers and engines, are already assigned to the fire.

"Ventura County is where they'll be able to take another stand," Kruschke said. This is where the fire "comes out of the wilderness into a more developed area, where we have roads and areas to give us access to take a more defensive stance."

On Wednesday, the fire was mostly in a section of the forest known as the Dick Smith Wilderness Area, between New Cuyama and Carpinteria, northwest of Ojai. It's unclear exactly when the fire will enter Ventura County, Rainwater said. The goal is to contain it west of Highway 33, about 12 miles north of Ojai.

Stuart Seto, an expert with the National Weather Service's regional office in Oxnard, said conditions should favor firefighters through the weekend, noting that a red flag warning was allowed to expire Wednesday morning.

Diminished winds, except for occasional gusts near Santa Ynez, and lower humidity are expected for the next few days, he said.

But the heat is expected to persist, with high temperatures forecast from 94 to 104 in lower elevations today and from the mid-80s to near 100 Saturday and Sunday.

"We've been lucky we haven't really gotten strong winds on this fire. . . so the fire grows little by little," Rainwater said.

"But conditions are so dry that 'a little' means another thousand acres," he said.

greg.griggs@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Zaca fire

Acres burned: 116,714

Structures destroyed: 1

Injuries: 29

Percent contained: 67

Date started: July 4

Expected containment: Sept. 7

Fire personnel: 2,890

Cost to date: $73.4 million

Source: National Forest Service

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