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Southern California wildfire grows to 1,700 acres, evacuations under way

By Amy R. Connolly and Shawn Price
Southern California wildfire grows to 1,700 acres, evacuations under way
An aerial view of the Sherpa Fire shows some of the 1,200 acres that have been consumed by the blaze. Evacuations are underway for parts of Santa Barbara County, Calif., as a result of the blaze. Photo courtesy InciWeb

SANTA BARBARA, Calif., June 16 (UPI) -- Residents and visitors near Las Padres National Forest were evacuated Thursday as a wildfire continues to ravage thousands of acres near Santa Barbara.

The so-called Sherpa Fire has consumed 1,700 acres in 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. Evacuation centers have been set up in two locations, including one that will take horses and other large animals.

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A 15-mile stretch of Highway 101 in Santa Barbara County was shut down for several hours into early Thursday morning.

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The fire is located near an ExxonMobil facility, which has been declared safe.

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The fire erupted about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday and quickly spread across 150 acres. In addition to ground crews, at least 15 air tankers and helicopters are attacking the flames. The mountainous terrain is making fighting the blaze all the more difficult.

"A lot of that area is very dangerous to put crews into, so it's going to be slow going," Santa Barbara County fire Capt. Dave Zaniboni said.

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The fire is raging in steep, chaparral-covered terrain in Los Padres National Forest that hasn't burned in 60 years and is rapidly moving east to very remote areas, Santa Barbara County fire chief Eric Peterson said.

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But fire officials said warm, dry offshore "sundowner" winds -- known for blowing through the canyon areas of Santa Barbara County year round -- are expected to be as high as 40 miles per hour Thursday night and could threaten areas such as Refugio Canyon, the site of 60 homes, and El Capitan Ranch, the site of 80 homes. The fire might also threaten a guest ranch in the area.

DC-10 air tankers bombed fire retardant on the blaze as crews of more than 800 firefighters and fire personnel are fighting the blaze, officials said.

There have been no injuries or structural damages. It is not clear what sparked the blaze.

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