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Local News

Bill Macfadyen: Whittier Fire Keeps the Heat On Noozhawk Readers

NoozWeek’s smoke-choked Top 5 includes mandatory evacuations, spectacular flames, sundowner winds, containment progress, and a local man’s mysterious death

Coming in hot with a load of retardant, near Calle Lippazana Road east of El Capitán Canyon while trying to outflank the Whittier Fire on July 14. Click to view larger
Coming in hot with a load of retardant, near Calle Lippazana Road east of El Capitán Canyon while trying to outflank the Whittier Fire on July 14. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Here we go again.

For the second week, the Whittier Fire continued to drive Noozhawk’s traffic. But you already knew that; 166,356 of you were behind the wheel this past week, according to our Google Analytics, and you weren’t driving a white Ford Bronco slowly down the freeway like you had nowhere to be.

So far this month, we’ve amassed way more than a half-million readers. By the time you read this, we will have surpassed our all-time monthly record of 539,984 readers, set in March 2016 and largely a result of the heinous murders of Dr. Henry Han and his family.

Each month, we routinely top 1 million pageviews, or stories read, and we’re already well over that figure in July.

We generally pay less attention to unique visitors, but we should set that monthly record early next week. Our previous high was 301,020 in May 2014, when the Isla Vista massacre brought global attention to Noozhawk.

In the last two weeks, we’ve also had a record number of you sign up for our free breaking news text alerts. We can always use more, however, so click here to register. Please note that these are text alerts, and a cell phone number is required.

On behalf of Team Noozhawk, thank you for your readership, support and confidence in us. We’re proud to serve you as your No. 1 source for local news in Santa Barbara County, even as we strive to do more and more.

Speaking of that, I’d like to ask you to please make a contribution to Noozhawk to help us expand our professional news coverage. A dollar a week would be fantastic, and I promise you it will be money well spent — by you and by us.

Please click here to make an online donation through PayPal, call me at 805.456.7195 to set up recurring billing through a credit card, or checks can be snail-mailed to Noozhawk, P.O. Box 101, Santa Barbara 93102.

What follows is my own take on your top five stories of the last week. I’ve again taken the liberty of providing the complete Top 10 list. Beware of smoke as there’s a lot of fire.

1. Mandatory Evacuations Ordered for Neighborhoods West of Goleta

With the Whittier Fire raging out of control near the top of the mountain ridges above Goleta on July 14 and sundowner winds in the afternoon forecast, authorities ordered the mandatory evacuation of a nearly 10-mile stretch of coastline west of the city.

The evacuation zone affected hundreds of residents between Winchester Canyon Road on the east and El Capitán Ranch Road on the west.

Among the neighborhoods feeling the impact were Farren Road, which already had been evacuated once, and Rancho Embarcadero in Tecolote Canyon.

Our Tom Bolton, who has been riding point on our Whittier Fire coverage, wrote up this story — then loaded up his family, pets and heirlooms, and left for his sister’s place in Noleta. They were out of their house for four days.

2. Whittier Fire Puts on Menacing Show as Sundowner Winds Whip Flames

As the Whittier Fire burned closer to Goleta the evening of July 14, crowds of locals were drawn to Winchester Canyon Road to watch the flames. Click to view larger
As the Whittier Fire burned closer to Goleta the evening of July 14, crowds of locals were drawn to Winchester Canyon Road to watch the flames. (Jeremy Anticouni photo)

On the night of July 14, the 7-day-old Whittier Fire produced its most dramatic and visible display of intensity yet.

Feeding off mature chaparral and propelled by sundowner winds, the fire kicked up towering flames that could be seen for miles on both sides of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

The light show drew crowds of spectators at vantage points along the South Coast as well as in Santa Ynez Valley communities.

More than 1,600 firefighters were battling the blaze, which had burned through 13,000 acres at the time and forced authorities to expand mandatory evacuation zones.

By the morning of July 15, the fire had grown to 17,364 acres, with just 35 percent of it contained.

3. Crews Battling Whittier Fire Brace for Weekend Sundowner Winds

The hills were alive with flames the night of July 13 as the Whittier Fire burned below Santa Ynez Peak in the mountains above Gato and Las Varas canyons west of Goleta. Click to view larger
The hills were alive with flames the night of July 13 as the Whittier Fire burned below Santa Ynez Peak in the mountains above Gato and Las Varas canyons west of Goleta. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

Weekend forecasts of sundowner winds had firefighters preparing July 13 for any number of Whittier Fire scenarios, most of them of the worst-case variety for vulnerable neighborhoods west of Goleta.

“Overall, the weather is always a wildcard, whether it comes or doesn’t,” incident commander Mark von Tillow told our Tom Bolton. “But we’re prepared for it, and I feel pretty comfortable right now with the plan we’ve got. Actually very comfortable.

“We’ll just have to wait and see if the weather develops.”

It didn’t, at least not to the level officials had feared.

I think what was driving the traffic on this story was a significant flare-up of the blaze that was seen throughout much of the Goleta Valley.

“That was in an area we call the thermal belt,” von Tillow explained. “That’s where the warm air gets trapped from the onshore flow of cold air that comes up to a certain point. And then the cold air that sinks at night traps that warm layer there in the middle.

“So that’s where the fire remained active, with the high temperatures and low humidity.”

By the morning of July 14, the fire had grown to 13,199 acres, with containment at 52 percent.

4. Firefighters Gaining Ground in Battle Against Stubborn Whittier Fire

No, Cold Spring Tavern is not gentrifying as a spa. These are portable water tanks for a temporary sprinkler system to protect the historic structure at 5995 Stagecoach Road near the Whittier Fire zone. Click to view larger
No, Cold Spring Tavern is not gentrifying as a spa. These are portable water tanks for a temporary sprinkler system to protect the historic structure at 5995 Stagecoach Road near the Whittier Fire zone. (U.S. Forest Service photo)

Ten days into the fierce battle against the Whittier Fire, crews on July 17 finally were able to complete a containment line on its northeast flank — the part burning roughly southeast of Lake Cachuma on the Santa Ynez Valley side of the mountains.

“We feel good about that area,” incident commander Mark von Tillow told our Giana Magnoli. “We kind of eliminated that threat of spread to the east.”

The historic Cold Spring Tavern, in a deep, steep canyon at 5995 Stagecoach Road, had been in the wildfire’s path, and portable water tanks and a temporary sprinkler system were set up to help protect the structures. The restaurant had been closed because of the danger and inaccessibility from the fire.

“I don’t feel the Cold Spring Tavern is under threat anymore,” von Tillow said.

He said firefighters have shifted their focus to the Whittier Fire’s more troublesome northwest side, where intense heat and rocky, precipitous terrain were formidable obstacles.

5. Body of Man Missing Since June Found in Creek Near Gaviota

The remains of Eric “Sunny” Buttler, the former owner of Outback Steakhouse in Goleta, were discovered in a creekbed off Highway 101 north of Gaviota on July 14, three weeks after he went missing.

What happened to Eric “Sunny” Buttler remains a mystery. Click to view larger
What happened to Eric “Sunny” Buttler remains a mystery. (Facebook photo)

According to his family, Buttler, 57, left Ojai for Lompoc around 5 p.m. June 24 but, for unknown reasons, he stopped in Carpinteria to spend the night. He talked by phone with a friend that evening — and that was the last anyone heard from him.

His cell phone was found at a Chevron gas station in Carpinteria a few days later. On July 4, his vehicle was discovered — abandoned and reportedly stripped — in a field near Santa Maria.

Buttler’s family apparently started searching for clues through Facebook posts beginning June 28. More than two weeks after he vanished, a Noozhawk reader stumbled on the social media plea and tipped us off. Our Josh Molina called the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, which soon issued a statement requesting the public’s help.

The afternoon of July 14, a resident of the Las Canovas Canyon area near Gaviota found a body in a creek, just east of the northbound Highway 1 exit to Lompoc. It was Buttler’s.

Sheriff’s Sgt. John Maxwell said detectives are investigating Buttler’s disappearance and the cause and circumstances of his death.

“No further details are available at this time,” he said.

Next 5

» Crews Battling Whittier Fire Get a Reprieve as Sundowner Winds Fall Short of Forecast, reported by Tom Bolton on July 15

» Goleta to Shut Down Ellwood Mesa Eucalyptus Grove for Urgent Tree Removal, reported by Josh Molina on July 18

» As Weather Improves, Firefighters Making Big Push to Contain Whittier Fire, reported by Tom Bolton on July 16

» Santa Barbara Vacation-Rental Conversion Sparks Housing Controversy, reported by Josh Molina on July 17

» Lompoc Man Missing in Kern County’s Lake Isabella, reported by Janene Scully on July 18

                                                                 •        •        •

Last Year on Noozhawk

What was our most-read story this time last year? Motorcyclist Killed, Driver Arrested on DUI Charges in Orcutt Crash.

                                                                 •        •        •

Bill Macfadyen’s Story of the Week

Do you remember this red-baiting populist uprising? I’ll bet my M&M-fanatic sister-in-law was one of the ringleaders: Why Red M&M’s Disappeared for a Decade.

                                                                  •        •        •

Watch It

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden created the Pyramid of Success. He left it to University of Miami football coach Mark Richt to come up with the 10-Bite Sandwich. Now I’m especially hungry to succeed.

(genefoto 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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