Jason Kandel

Progress Made in Sherpa Fire Fight

The Sherpa fire near Refugio State Beach exploded in the hills of Santa Barbara County

Fire crews made big strides Friday in extending containment lines and blocking the Sherpa Fire in Santa Barbara County from expanding, although it has already burned 5,800 acres.

The Sherpa Fire began at the top of Refugio Road Wednesday afternoon near Refugio State Beach and Reagan Ranch. The location is about 25 miles north of Santa Barbara, near an ExxonMobil processing facility along the Southern California coast.

About 140 homes and ranches were considered at risk in southern Santa Barbara County at the foot of the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains, an east-west trending range that parallels the south-facing coast.

The fire, named because it sits near the Sherpa Ranch, chewed through brush and other fuel that has not burned in about 70 years, fire authorities said, and forced this week's second closure of the 101 Freeway.

Hundreds remain evacuated Friday evening.

No homes were destroyed, but a water treatment plant at El Capitan State Beach burned down overnight, just hours before authorities delcared a local state of emergency.

The weekend forecast suggests firefighters face a tough battle, with strong "sundowner" winds building into the evening and the warmest weather so far this year. Temperatures in the triple-digits are likely across much of Southern California.

Fires become especially dangerous when sundowners are formed by high pressure inland to the north and low pressure over the ocean to the south, causing gusty winds to sweep down the face of the mountains. A gust in the fire area around 1 a.m. Friday was clocked at 47 mph, the National Weather Service said.

Cooler conditions are not expected until Tuesday.

Mandatory evacuations were in effect for the areas of Refugio Canyon, Las Flores, Venadito, El Capitan Campground, El Capitan State Park, Ocean Mesa at El Capitan State Park and Refugio Campground. An evacuation center has been set up at the Wake Center, 300 N. Turnpike Road in Goleta and for large animals at the Earl Warren Showgrounds. A second evacuation center was set up at Santa Ynez Union High School, 2976 E. Highway 246 in Santa Ynez.

Capt. Dave Zaniboni said he didn't have a specific number of residences or people affected but that the crude processing facility has a cleared buffer zone. ExxonMobil has evacuated some employees, and those that remain are helping protect the plant against the flames, company spokesman Todd Spitler told The Associated Press.

The firefighting aircraft included a converted DC-10, eight air tankers, three helitankers and helicopters.

The inferno appeared to support national wildfire authorities' predictions of another dangerous and difficult year for the state after years of drought. State firefighters and the U.S. Forest Service already have fought more than 1,800 wildfires since Jan. 1, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

While El Nino-influenced weather delivered rain and snow to Northern California this winter, the south was bypassed. What rain fell was just enough to sprout grasses that quickly died, adding to the danger of long-dead vegetation.

A smoke advisory was issued for parts of Los Angeles and Orange counties. Winds from the northwest can push smoke from the fire into those regions, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Significant air quality problems were not detected Friday, but a layer of haze could be seen from the Los Angeles area.

NBC4's Patrick Healy contributed to this report.

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