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Bill Macfadyen: Wildfire Season Roars to Life in Santa Barbara County

Engulfed in flames, NoozWeek’s Top 5 doubles in size to accommodate fire coverage, but manages to make a shark week out of it, too

Evacuations were too hot to handle at Circle V Ranch Camp in the Santa Ynez Valley. Click to view larger
Evacuations were too hot to handle at Circle V Ranch Camp in the Santa Ynez Valley. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

It’s no surprise that this past week of wildfires engulfed this week’s Best of Bill column. From one end of Santa Barbara County to the other, it’s been impossible to escape talk of the two massive brush fires burning simultaneously, along with the sights, the smell, the ash.

While the structural damage has been comparatively light, the devastation has been extensive, especially at three camps along Highway 154 where the 13,199-acre Whittier Fire ignited the afternoon of July 8.

Camp Whittier, Circle V Ranch Camp & Retreat Center and the Rancho Alegre Boy Scout Camp and The Outdoor School there are all in the Santa Ynez Mountains across the highway from Lake Cachuma. All three suffered catastrophic losses when the flames raged through in the early hours of the conflagration.

Nearly 150 people — 90 of them children — were trapped for several hours when the wildfire overran Circle V Ranch Camp, before the contingent could be safely rescued. Camp Whittier’s caretakers lost their home and most of their possessions. Rancho Alegre and The Outdoor School lost everything.

East of Santa Maria, the Alamo Fire that started the afternoon of July 6 near Twitchell Reservoir has since grown to 28,687 acres, or an eye-popping 45 square miles.

As of July 14, the Alamo Fire stands at 85 percent containment and the Whittier Fire at 52 percent. Just before noon July 14, authorities ordered mandatory evacuations for neighborhoods west of Goleta, all the way to El Capitán Ranch Road.

Team Noozhawk merits a major shout-out for what has been by far the most accurate, most current and most complete coverage of both of these fires. Tom Bolton, Giana Magnoli, Janene Scully, Ray Ford, Brooke Holland, Josh Molina, Shomik Mukherjee, Emmalia Sutherland, Laurie Jervis, Zack Warburg, Ryan Cullom, the Urban Hikers and honorary Noozhawk Mike Eliason of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department have been tireless, relentless and ubiquitous.

Tom even worked around a Long Beach Fire Department truck and crew camped in his driveway for two days and nights while the Whittier Fire was threatening to sweep down the canyons west of Goleta.

All of Noozhawk’s reporting is free for our readers to consume, but it costs money to produce professional journalism you know you can rely on when you need it most. If you can contribute to help us expand our operation, we would be most grateful. You’d be quite impressed at how far we can stretch a contribution of even a dollar a week.

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According to our Google Analytics, meanwhile, fire-related articles swept Noozhawk’s list of Top 5 stories of the week and seized eight places in the Top 10.

I’m invoking my publisher’s prerogative and listing all 10, which will give you a better idea of the scope of our reporters’ exhaustive — and exhausting — work. For full containment, that also includes the two nonwildfire stories that made the grade: shark sightings off Carpinteria’s Padaro Beach and an RV blaze in Santa Barbara.

Here’s my version of the events that 266,313 of you — yes, 266,313 — were reading this last week:

1. Over 7,800 Acres Burned as Whittier Fire Rages Out of Control Near Lake Cachuma

Noozhawk’s initial reporting on a natural disaster often draws the biggest crowd. That pattern repeated itself with our first Whittier Fire story, which to date has been read nearly 70,000 times, just under 50,000 of them in the first 12 hours.

The wildfire ignited about 1:40 p.m. July 8 near Camp Whittier, a retreat center and overnight camp operated by the United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County at 2400 Highway 154. Authorities believe a car fire started the blaze but the cause remains under official investigation.

Within minutes, Noozhawk’s Ray Ford — far and away the best wildfire reporter you’ll ever come across — was on his way up the mountain. Our Tom Bolton had the first story posted within a half-hour.

Throughout the day and night, Tom updated with dramatic details that could have been far, far worse.

Some 90 children and 50 staff members were forced to shelter in place at Circle V Ranch Camp, 2550 Highway 154, because the fast-moving flames and erratic conditions cut off the way out, preventing their evacuation.

U.S. Forest Service firefighters were deployed around them inside the camp while an army of rescue personnel waited just outside the fire’s footprint. Hours later, they seized the opportunity and got everyone out safely.

Circle V wasn’t the only camp affected. As you’ll soon seen, Rancho Alegre was wiped out and Camp Whittier wasn’t spared.

Late that night, the flames topped Condor Ridge, providing an ominous view for nervous fire watchers on the South Coast. An evacuation warning was issued for far western Goleta, from Winchester Canyon Road west to Las Varas Canyon. Around midnight, residents of Farren Road were ordered to leave.

By the morning of July 9, it was estimated that the fire had grown to more than 7,800 acres with containment at just 5 percent.

This shot in the dark was taken just before midnight July 8, looking north from Cathedral Oaks Road in far western Goleta. (Will Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo)
This shot in the dark was taken just before midnight July 8, looking north from Cathedral Oaks Road in far western Goleta. (Will Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo)

2. Evacuation Orders Expanded as Whittier Fire Marches Toward Goleta

No one likes to see a massive tower of smoke rising on the horizon, especially in the chaotic early hours of an out-of-control brush fire. What’s even more unnerving is when flames are visible after dark, and landmarks aren’t.

Late on the night of July 8, the Whittier Fire crested the mountaintop above Goleta, providing a clear view of the flames for residents along the South Coast below.

The fire was well up the mountainside but its downward path was direct enough that authorities ordered the immediate evacuation of Farren Road west of Goleta, the first “downslope” area to be cleared out.

Earlier in the day, mandatory evacuations were ordered for Highway 154 through the Santa Ynez Valley between Paradise and Armour Ranch roads, and for West Camino Cielo between Highway 154 and the Winchester Canyon Gun Club, and including Kinevan Road.

Highway 154 was closed to all but emergency vehicles and evacuees, from Santa Barbara all the way to Highway 246 in Santa Ynez.

Rancho Alegre goes up in flames in the early hours of the Whittier Fire. (Ray Fire / Noozhawk photo)
Rancho Alegre goes up in flames in the early hours of the Whittier Fire. (Ray Fire / Noozhawk photo)

3. Outdoor School, Rancho Alegre Boy Scout Camp Destroyed in Whittier Fire

Rancho Alegre took a direct hit July 8 when the Whittier Fire roared through the 213-acre camp at 2680 Highway 154. The ranch is home to the Boy Scouts of America’s Los Padres Council and The Outdoor School.

No one was injured, but most of the buildings were destroyed by flames.

Summer camp was supposed to start July 10, and Scout officials have canceled programs until they can come up with a Plan B.

The Outdoor School, which leases its facilities from the Scouts, serves thousands of local school children each year, hosting day trips and overnight and multiday outdoor education programs aimed at nurturing community and environmental stewardship.

Drop zone. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)
Drop zone. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

4. Flare-up on Northeast Side of Whittier Fire Puts Up Lots of Smoke over Santa Barbara

Gusty afternoon winds gave the Whittier Fire a jolt of energy July 11, generating another dramatic column of smoke as the blaze’s northeastern flank moved down into Hot Spring Canyon near Rancho San Marcos Golf Course, 4600 Highway 154, and made a run into adjacent Bear Creek Canyon.

The winds subsided with nightfall, but not before a lot of the South Coast was coated in a fine layer of ash.

This is gonna take a while. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)
This is gonna take a while. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

5. Rugged Terrain Means Fight Against Whittier Fire Likely to Be a Long One

With the Whittier Fire raging out of control the night of July 9, firefighters braced themselves for an extended battle. Their efforts were being hindered by high temperatures, low humidity, rugged terrain and plentiful fuel.

Throughout California, it was a busy weekend for firefighting. Not only were two wildfires growing in Santa Barbara County, there were blazes in San Luis Obispo County and several more elsewhere in the state.

“The biggest challenge right now is the terrain, and getting the crews in there,” Mark von Tillow, Los Padres Santa Barbara Ranger District division chief for the U.S. Forest Service, told our Tom Bolton.

“We don’t have a lot of natural barriers. We’ve got structures, ranches in the way that we need to protect. And then competing with the other fires in the state to get the resources is going to be our biggest challenge.”

Von Tillow said full containment of the Whittier Fire could be at least two weeks away.

(Regan Williams video)

6. Sharks Captured on Camera Swimming Near Padaro Lane in Carpinteria

Regan Williams was sailing with her family off Padaro Lane in Carpinteria the afternoon of July 8 when they spotted a school of great white sharks swimming lazily just offshore.

She said about a half-dozen of the sharks, estimated to be 7-8 feet in length, got as near as about 20 yards from the beach before drifting on.

Regan — the 16-year-old daughter of my friends, Jen and Rob Williams — caught much of the shark patrol with her phone. Her pictures and videos made a valiant run at NoozWeek’s Top 5 before the sheer volume and velocity of wildfire stories overwhelmed them.

The Alamo Fire area has been unbearable. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)
The Alamo Fire area has been unbearable. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

7. Alamo Fire Nearly Doubles in Size Overnight to 6,000 Acres

The Alamo Fire that broke out east of Santa Maria on July 6 grew to 175 acres overnight. Within 24 hours, however, it had jumped to 3,400 acres as gusty winds propelled it over previously established retardant lines.

The blaze nearly doubled again — to 6,000 acres — by the afternoon of July 8.

Firefighters were positioned to protect homes, ranches and wineries in Tepusquet Canyon.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for Tepusquet Road from Blazing Saddle Drive to Santa Maria Mesa Road, along White Rock Lane and Colson Canyon. Highway 166 was closed to traffic.

The cause of the fire, which started near Twitchell Reservoir off Highway 166, remained under investigation.

OK, so change of vacation plans ... (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)
OK, so change of vacation plans ... (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

8. Several RVs Destroyed by Fire on State Street Near Santa Barbara

Note to self: Pouring gasoline into the carburetor isn’t the smartest way to start a balky vehicle.

According to Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason, an RV owner tried that old lawnmower trick the afternoon of July 11 but only succeeded in setting his vehicle on fire, giving himself second- and third-degree burns, and destroying and damaging several other recreational vehicles.

Eliason said several RVs were engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived at the storage lot at 4267 State St., west of Highway 154.

The man, whose identity was not disclosed, was taken by American Medical Response ambulance to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. Details on his condition were not available.

Flames of reference in the Alamo Fire near Santa Maria. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)
Flames of reference in the Alamo Fire near Santa Maria. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

9. Alamo Fire Jumps Containment Lines, Grows to Nearly 24,000 Acres East of Santa Maria

Ideal burn conditions supersized the fast-moving Alamo Fire, which had grown to nearly 24,000 acres by July 9 — three days after it started east of Santa Maria.

High temperatures, extremely low humidity, some wind, and remote and steep terrain combined to give firefighters fits.

One of the biggest challenges was the brush.

“With the rain this year, it brought up that grass crop that is like a fuse for the fire,” Cal Fire public information officer Chris Elms told our Janene Scully.

The Alamo Fire area last burned in the 1950s, he said.

Montecito firefighters were among those deployed on the front lines of the Whittier Fire. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)
Montecito firefighters were among those deployed on the front lines of the Whittier Fire. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

10. With Help of Favorable Weather, Whittier Fire Reaches 25% Containment

After 2½ days of intense heat and low humidity, firefighters battling the Whittier Fire caught a break with a change in the weather overnight on July 10.

By the morning of July 11, containment had risen to 25 percent, mostly on the northern flank along Highway 154 and Lake Cachuma.

                                                                 •        •        •

Last Year on Noozhawk

What was our most-read story this time last year? Fatal Collision Snarls Southbound Highway 101 Traffic in Montecito.

                                                                 •        •        •

Bill Macfadyen’s Story of the Week

Prepare to be demoralized: The Most Detailed Visual of the California Budget We Know Of.

                                                                  •        •        •

Watch It

HT to my friend, Ben Speirs, for catching pro surfer Evan Geiselman on one gnarly ride in central Namibia. Only discovered recently, the site already is considered by many to be the best left pointbreak in the world.

(Ben Speirs video)

                                                                  •        •        •

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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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