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Balcom Cyn key to fighting Guiberson Fire

September 23, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Firefighters attacked the fast-moving Guiberson Fire from the ground and in the air Wednesday. The fire was burning out of control between Fillmore and Moorpark, where there were voluntary evacuations for residents in some communities.The fire has scorched 16,100 acres and was 40 percent contained Wednesday afternoon. Officials said containment is expected on Saturday, depending on the weather.

All mandatory evacuations were lifted Wednesday morning. There was very little wind early Wednesday morning, but by afternoon, the Santa Ana winds were back, blowing the fire closer to homes in the northern areas of Moorpark.

"The fire remains active. This fire has a lot of potential for significant growth today," said Robert Lewin, Cal Fire incident commander.

Voluntary evacuation orders were issued for homes between Bradley Road and Balcom Canyon Road, north of Highway 118 and homes in the Campus Park area, north and east of Moorpark College. Homes on Stockton Road and West Grimes Canyon Road, north of Meadowglade Drive, were also under voluntary evacuations.

Moorpark College, Campus Canyon Elementary and Walnut Canyon Elementary were closed for the day.

Crews from around the Southland were en route to the Moorpark area to help fight the flames. More than 864 firefighters were on the line Wednesday, and a call was put out for more fire engines.

Hotshot crews worked rapidly to choke off the fire's "food supply."

"We're trying to do some brush clearance really quick," said Seth McKinney, U.S. Forest Service. "If the fire does by chance get over here, then we're going to cut some of the brush, all of the heavier brush. That way it'll lower the fire behavior once it gets here -- make this road a little more holdable."

"One of the objectives was to try to keep the fire to the east of Balcom Canyon," said Tony McHale, Ventura County Fire Dept. "We have had some cross over onto the west side of Balcom Canyon, but again, we have resources on there trying to contain that. We try to utilize highways, roads, natural barriers -- anything that can assist us in containing the fire."

Santa Paula is just north of Balcom Canyon. Fillmore is due east. Moorpark is southeast.

Fire crews believe if they can make a stand in the canyon, they can gain a major advantage over the fire.

"Locally, we have erratic winds, flashy fuels, all the variables that make for a very challenging firefight," said McHale. "We have a number of resources in this area. We have an 'air show' that we call, helicopters and air tankers in the area, we have hand crews that are prepping some of the structures that are in this canyon area. What we have is basic ground-pounding firefighting in this canyon right now."

Fire crews are concerned if they can't claim victory at the summit of Balcom Canyon, the fire might head toward Santa Paula, while threatening a glut of ranch homes at the bottom of Balcom Canyon Road, less than five miles away.

Fire crews say the success of their firefight depends on Mother Nature giving them a break.

"There's another gust of wind coming up right now," said McHale. "So these are the kinds of factors that the firefighters are dealing with right now. You'll have calm winds, all of the sudden you'll get a blowup. That's when you really have to be heads up."

Four firefighters have sustained minor injuries, and two outbuildings have been destroyed.

Most of the flames were burning in very rugged terrain in the high hills and mountains that lie between the communities of Moorpark and Fillmore and on both sides of the State Route 23.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Ventura County on Tuesday.

As many as 300 families had been ordered out of their homes as the fire advanced.

Worried residents said they are ready for evacuation orders.

"I started packing pictures, irreplaceable items, birth certificates, any document like that," said Moorpark resident Heather Johnston.

Residents know what to do in this area because they've seen their share of fires.

Firefighters said residents have done a great job clearing out brush.

"When we walked the ridge earlier, lots of clearance out there, which is good, and lots of low-lying brush," said Marc Hansen, Orange County Fire Dept. "That's what we like to see. Not the most prettiest thing in the world, but in terms of fire safety, it actually helps our job tremendously."

Firefighters also said the brush in Moorpark hills is much lower than what they normally see, in part because they've had a couple of big fires in the area over the past few years. The low grass can burn quickly, but it does not burn nearly as hot.

Much of the burn area is rural horse and cattle country. Ranchers have been trucking their livestock to an animal evacuation center set up at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

Somis rancher Donna Strempel brought three of her horses to the fairgrounds on Tuesday when the flames got too close.

"Like five years ago, we didn't evacuate in time, well we did, but it was kind of late, and so I wanted to make sure we got them out. They're young," she said.

The animals continue to arrive. Owners had checked in 136 horses, three donkeys, two goats, three pigs and a lamb by Wednesday.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, though a preliminary report pegged the cause as "spontaneous combustion of manure."

The California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection provided an information line for area residents: (805) 388-4276.

Eyewitness News Reporter John Gregory contributed to this report.

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