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Zaca fire burning way into state history

The blaze, which began July 4 near Solvang and is still alive, is now No. 3 on the Top 10 list.

August 20, 2007|Marla Cone and Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writers

A stubborn wildfire that ignited near Solvang on the Fourth of July and is expected to burn past Labor Day is now the third-largest blaze in modern California history and might eventually become the largest.

A combination of parched, century-old chaparral and steep, roadless terrain has turned the Zaca fire, which has burned 193 square miles of mostly uninhabited wilderness, into one of the most challenging blazes that firefighters have ever battled in California.

The fire in the Los Padres National Forest and surrounding wilderness is so massive that thick smoke and grimy ash have blanketed parts of four counties -- Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Kern -- triggering on-and-off health alerts since early July.

Although the fire was considered 75% contained Sunday, it moved into Ventura County over the weekend and firefighters still must build three more miles of fire lines on its eastern flank before completely surrounding it.

As a precaution, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sunday proclaimed a state of emergency in Ventura County, expanding the declaration he had issued for Santa Barbara County on Aug. 3.

"The fire is growing, and certainly it's still a situation of concern," said Jim Turner, a spokesman for the team of federal, state and county firefighters. "We're not out of the woods by any means."

The Los Padres National Forest, which stretches from the Big Sur coast in Monterey County to the western edge of Los Angeles County, is considered the worst location in the state when it comes to massive, difficult-to-control fires. Of the 20 largest fires in California since 1932, nine have burned there.

The fire grew by several thousand acres over the weekend, and with hotter, drier weather forecast for the next two days, it probably will become even more active. Humidity in the area is expected to drop into the single digits today and Tuesday.

The main goal of the 3,000 crew members who are battling the Zaca fire, at a cost so far approaching $82 million, is to keep the flames from heading south into the coastal communities of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Their strategy has been to aggressively light many backfires, since most areas of the wilderness are inaccessible and unsafe for firefighters and heavy equipment.

"We're fighting fire with fire," said Bill White, a spokesman for the firefighting effort and also a captain with the Atascadero Fire Department.

As the fire crossed the Ventura County line, Turner said, "There's no imminent threat" in the county.

In Ojai on Sunday afternoon, about 200 residents showed up at a middle school for a 90-minute update from the Ventura County Fire Department and U.S. Forest Service. Accustomed to large, persistent wildfires in the area, many of them applauded fire officials and expressed confidence in them. Nevertheless, they were still concerned that even the best firefighting techniques can be overwhelmed by hazardous fire conditions.

In particular, if strong winds get behind a fire, "I don't know if there is anything you can do," said Art Balchen, a rancher in Ojai whose property was destroyed during a wind-whipped 1985 fire that drove a 200-foot-long wall of flames on his ranchland.

"How can you fight that? You can't," Balchen said, adding that "luck is going to have a whole lot to do with it."

Peter Haggerty, a retired scientist from Ojai, said that when the Zaca fire broke out "it didn't seem like it was our fire." Instead, it was Santa Barbara County's.

"It's kind of hard to believe that it has burned as far as it has burned," he said.

"Now that we're seeing it, and being affected by the ash and smoke, it becomes a little more real," Haggerty said.

Ojai City Manager Jere Kersnar said that repeated public briefings and fire information updates at grocery stores have helped calm residents' concerns. Still, in recent weeks frequent smoke has been an unpleasant reminder.

"With the smoke always being there, that does cause anxiety. Sometimes it's been really bad," he said. "People are worried. It's there all the time, day after day, and that's hard for folks."

On Sunday, the blaze got within three miles of California 33, which was shut north of Ojai, between Wheeler Gorge and Ventucopa.

On Saturday night, residents of a few dozen houses along the west side of the highway were advised to evacuate.

Firefighters set backfires near the highway in an effort to prevent the flames from crossing it and racing through wilderness that extends to the northernmost subdivisions of Los Angeles County.

"The fire has made some easterly moves over the past three days, so the active front is on the eastern side and it has made a small incursion into Ventura County," Turner said. "We are reinforcing the eastern end. We want to protect Highway 33 on the east side and the communities of Ojai, Montecito and Carpinteria on the south side."

The fire was sparked accidentally on the morning of July 4 by workers who were repairing a pipeline at a ranch 15 miles northeast of Buellton.

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