Fire erupts at Vandenberg

Fire erupts at Vandenberg

28 October 2010

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USA —  A wind-driven brush fire that quickly grew to more than 340 acres prompted the partial evacuation of Vandenberg Air Force Base and the precautionary closure of Surf Beach on Thursday.

Firefighters who continued battling the blaze on South Base late into the night were hoping for the quick arrival of expected rainy weather later today.

“We’ll be working through the night to contain the fire with the hope that we get rain and the winds die down,” said 2nd Lt. Ann Blodzinski, a Vandenberg spokeswoman.

By nightfall, the high winds were dying down, giving firefighters hope as they fought to surround the flames.

As of late Thursday night, crews had surrounded about 10 percent of the fire, which they believe sparked from a power line. They hoped to achieve full containment this afternoon, according to Division Chief Dan Ardoin of the Vandenberg Fire Department.

Base officials said several power poles that supply the main base with electricity had burned, adding that they were still assessing the impact of the loss of those lines.

What was dubbed the Bear Creek Fire started about 1 p.m. in heavy brush that, paired with warm temperatures and high winds, quickly fueled the flames.

“Right now we’re trying to put the fire in a box,” using containment lines and fire breaks such as roads, said Capt. David Sadecki from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Crews were using Arguello, Bear Creek, Coast and Mesa roads as boundaries.

“They’re providing really good breaks for us,” Ardoin said.

The National Weather Service reported winds in the Lompoc area at 20 mph, with gusts up to 32 mph and the temperature hovering near 80 degrees Thursday afternoon.

“The main challenge in fighting the fire was the rapid spread,” Sadecki said, adding that flames later moved into light and moderate brush.

Fire crews also had to deal with an unusual danger — some areas have unexploded ordnance left over from the site’s use as an Army training facility. That dictated how firefighters worked to battle the blaze, Vandenberg officials said.

The fire area is west of Arguello Road near Bear Creek Road, leading to the name for the blaze. That area is close to Space Launch Complex-3, the Atlas launch pad.

At one time, flames reportedly threatened six structures in the area. A small army of firefighters and equipment, including seven bulldozers, 28 engines, three helicopters, three hand crews and two fixed-wing aircraft, were involved in the firefight.

Vandenberg fire officials requested support from Lompoc city, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, Los Padres National Forest, California Highway Patrol and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.

Vandenberg leaders said Thursday night that employees should expect normal operations this morning.

Flames were several miles from Space Launch Complex-2, where a Delta 2 rocket and an Italian satellite are awaiting liftoff on Sunday night. Before reaching that site, flames would have to cross Ocean Avenue, the Santa Ynez River and then several acres of land and other roads.

The fire started as Vandenberg’s main unit, the 30th Space Wing, was undergoing a major inspection. However, that inspection, which typically includes mock emergencies, was suspended as personnel dealt with the real-world situation.

The timing was fortuitous. Commanders were still assembled when word of the fire arrived, and ready to make decisions as needed, added Jeremy Eggers, Vandenberg’s public affairs chief.

With more than 99,000 acres, Vandenberg has seen some huge fires and even a deadly one.

In December 1977, the wind-driven Honda Fire killed four people and quickly consumed 10,000 acres on South Base.

That fire led to the creation of the Vandenberg Hotshots, a specialized crew of wildland firefighters. The base also developed a fuels-management program to ensure prescribed burns are conducted to help control vegetation on the sprawling installation.

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