By Janene Scully, Noozhawk North County Editor

The Alamo Fire exploded to 19,000 acres Saturday afternoon after it jumped containment lines again, and burned toward the Tepusquet Canyon area east of Santa Maria.

Aircraft and hundreds of firefighters battled the fast-moving vegetation fire, which has burned insatiably since Friday morning, when it was reportedly at 175 acres. However, some members of the firefighting force, including most aircraft, were diverted Saturday afternoon to the Whittier Fire burning near Lake Cachuma.

“This is very very steep rugged mountain terrain,” Fire Inspector Ryan DiGuilio from Santa Barbara City Fire Department said, while referring to a map. “There’s no roads  in any of these areas here so it’s going to make firefighting very difficult in the sense that there’s going to be a lot of hand crews doing hand line construction to get in here. It’s a lot of hiking up steep terrain, dangerous hot work.”

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for Tepusquet Road from Blazing Saddles Drive to Santa Maria Mesa Road, Blazing Saddle Drive and White Rock Lane, plus Colson Canyon, Pine Canyon, Buckhorn Ridge, and White Rock Road, as the fire moved south.

About 200 homes are within the evacuation area, according to Cal Fire San Luis Obispo.

The fire was reportedly 10 percent contained as of 3 p.m. Saturday.

Calfire and the Santa Barbara County Fire Department are handling the blaze, which started in San Luis Obispo County near Twitchell Reservoir on Thursday.

The firefighting force reached 1,000 personnel as of early Saturday afternoon and was expected to grow by Sunday with newcomers to be assigned to various segments of the firefighting line.

“It’s quite a planning and strategy task to get all these folks on the same page doing the same thing with the fire progressing, with the weather changing,” DiGuilio said. “It’s a lot of moving pieces of the puzzle.”

A unified command team of Cal Fire and Santa Barbara County Fire has led the battle, but an incident management team from Cal Fire is expected to take over Sunday.

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The American Red Cross opened an evacuation center at the Minami Community Center at 600 W. Enos Drive in Santa Maria.

The Santa Maria Elks/Unocal Event Center at 4040 Highway 101 was designated as the shelter for evacuated large animals, while the Santa Maria Animal Shelter, 548 W. Foster Road, was available to house small animals, Santa Barbara County Animal Services officials announced.

This weekend, the rodeo grounds hosted the California Bridle Horse Association, which intended to finish its activity by Saturday night and leave Sunday, in time for the anticipated growth of the fire camp.

“They’ve got as much as they need right now,” said Tina Tonascia, chief operations officer for the Elks Rodeo organization. “As they need more, we’re clearing it. Everybody’s working together as a team. It’s been great.”

Meanwhile, they expected more evacuated animals could show up as the fire grew Saturday.

“We’re prepared,” added Stacy Silva from Santa Barbara County Animal Services.

“The volunteers have gotten the pens ready. The troughs are filled with water. The feed buckets are here. Everything’s here. We’re ready,” Tonascia said.

“We’ll take in those babies and take good care of them. We’ll treat them like they’re ours,” she added.

Small animals, essentially dogs and cats, can be taken to the Santa Maria Animal Center.

“It seems to be a steady flow of small animals coming in today,” Silva said.

The Santa Maria Valley Humane Society helped by taking in several shelter dogs to free up space for the evacuated animals, Silva said.

A disaster trailer also is set up to provide crates for those needing to evacuate, Silva added.

Those with large and small animals were urged not to wait until the last minute.

“Early evacuation for your large animals is key,” Silva said. “Don’t wait. As soon as you get an evacuation warning or if you’re concerned you’re going get an evacuation warning, either bring them to the Elks/Unocal Event Center or call us so we can arrange transport.”

Volunteers from the San Luis Obispo County Horse Emergency Evacuation Team were ready to assist those evacuating large animals from the fire zone.

Additionally, evacuated animals previously registered for the Santa Barbara County Fair Junior Livestock Auction next week were allowed to take them to the fairgrounds in Santa Maria on Friday, two days earlier than the planned arrival.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation.

The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department and the County Air Pollution Control District issued an air quality watch for North County areas through the weekend due to smoke from the fire.

Ash from the fire fell throughout North County, coating vehicles and anything else sitting outside.

Highway 166 has been closed since the fire broke out Thursday afternoon along the roadway, east of Highway 101. As of Saturday afternoon, Highway 166 was closed between Highway 101 to Perkins Road in Cuyama.

Check back with Noozhawk for updates to this story.