Solimar Fire tamed, but slide worry remains
As firefighters tamed the Solimar Fire north of Ventura Sunday, charred hillsides above the seaside transportation corridor spelled out a future threat: landslides.
"This fire has a devastating potential for Highway 101, for the Pacific Coast Highway and for Union Pacific Railroad should we get some real heavy rain," said Ventura County Fire Capt. Mike Lindbery while touring the area midday.
The brush fire that erupted around 11 p.m. Friday — Christmas night — burned an estimated 1,236 acres and shut down travel on the coastal route between Ventura and Santa Barbara into Saturday afternoon.
The blaze was 75 percent contained as of 5:30 p.m. Sunday. About 335 firefighters from multiple agencies remained on scene, down from 600-plus on Saturday as threats to homes and other structures receded. Full containment was expected sometime Tuesday.
Fire officials say the blaze started during high winds when utility poles owned by an oil production company fell.
The steep hillsides above Highway 101 are home to a productive oil field where private roads snake through canyons sprouting sagebrush and scrub oak.
The Solimar Fire burned so hot there's nothing left in some areas.
"It's nuked — moonscaped," Lindbery said as he drove through oil field acreage on the north side of the freeway.
Root systems that would typically hold the soft, sandy soil in place are gone, he said. With intense rain of an inch or more per hour, there's a chance for debris flow and slides.
"Gravity's going to take it where it wants to go," Lindbery said, "and where it wants to go is down on the highway, across the railroad tracks and right into whatever is in its way."
Meteorologists have said strong El Niño conditions could lead to heavy rains and flooding in the first few months of 2016.
The burned oil field area is operated by California Resources Corp. Lindbery and another incident spokesman, Firefighter Andy Van Sciver, were leading a quartet of local newspaper and television personnel to ground zero of the area Sunday, but a company official asked the group to leave.
Amy Fonzo, a spokeswoman for CRC, said in an email Sunday evening the group had been escorted off the private property for safety reasons.
"Any and all personnel who come onto the leases must go through a safety orientation, have personal protective equipment and have an escort from the company," Fonzo wrote, adding it is unlikely that future tours of the burn areas will occur.
When the blaze erupted Christmas night, operators at CRC's oil field saw the fire, immediately notified authorities and secured wells and facilities in the area, Fonzo wrote.
"CRC and our employees who live and work in the area would like to thank all of the firefighters and emergency responders for their quick response and handling of the fire," she said in the email.
While the fire prompted evacuations of Solimar Beach residents and campers at Emma Wood State Beach, firefighters kept the blaze away from homes and other structures. Two firefighters suffered minor ankle and knee injuries.
Burn areas accessible Sunday showed the fire, which started in the hills above Highway 101, burned toward the beach past Pacific Coast Highway and the railroad tracks in spots. Blackened vegetation and ash lined portions of the road through Emma Wood State Beach's oceanfront RV sites.
"It looks like the intense firefight is over," Lindbery said Sunday afternoon, noting a weather change had brought beneficial cloud cover that shifted conditions in firefighters' favor.
Crews will remain on scene scouting out hot areas that have potential to ignite unburned vegetation.
"We're on a search and destroy mission right now," he said.
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