Sunday, November 19 , 2017, 2:05 pm | Fair 65º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Crews Battling Whittier Fire Get a Reprieve as Sundowner Winds Fall Short of Forecast

Conditions on firelines are less intense than previous night; area burned grows to 18,015 acres but containment remains at 36 percent

A firefighter watches as a BAe-146 makes a retardant drop along the western flank of the Whittier Fire near West Camino Cielo on Saturday. Click to view larger
A firefighter watches as a BAe-146 makes a retardant drop along the western flank of the Whittier Fire near West Camino Cielo on Saturday. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)
Map of the Whittier Fire as of Sunday morning. Click to view larger
Map of the Whittier Fire as of Sunday morning.

Activity on the Whittier Fire was noticeably calmer Saturday, with expected evening sundowner winds falling short of what was forecast.

While flames were still visible along the southern face of the Santa Ynez Mountains west of Goleta, they were far less menacing than what occurred Friday night, when the blaze ballooned by some 4,000 acres.

“We kind of predicted that stuff,” incident commander Mark von Tillow told Noozhawk on Saturday. “We prepared for it, we were ready for it. It wasn’t surprising to us.

“I think it might have been very impressive to the public, probably worried about it a little bit, but we had people there.”

Similar conditions were forecast for Saturday night, but for the most part, the sundowners were less than predicted.

After the evening briefing for firefighters, Von Tillow sounded an optimistic note when assessing the status of the week-old blaze, which ignited the afternoon of July 8 near Camp Whittier across Highway 154 from Lake Cachuma.

“I did get all the way around the fire today with my deputy, and had a look at all the places they’re talking about,” he said.

“And I feel good about everything that’s there. But we’ve got a full week ahead of us, barring no wind events come and change things.”

Sunset on Saturday brought considerably less activity on the Whittier Fire compared to the previous night. Click to view larger
Sunset on Saturday brought considerably less activity on the Whittier Fire compared to the previous night. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

As of Sunday morning, the fire had blackened 18,015 acres and remained 36 percent contained.

An updated total shows that 16 residences and 30 outbuildings have been destroyed, and one residence and six outbuildings have been damaged.

An estimated 3,500 people have been evacuated, mainly along the Highway 154 corridor, Paradise Road and in the West Camino Cielo area, and in the canyons west of Goleta.

Aiding firefighters Saturday night were high clouds moving in from the south, bringing increased humidity.

The fire remained in what’s known as a “backing alignment” on Saturday, meaning it was moving slowly downslope rather than burning uphill or being propelled by the wind, according to fire behavior specialist Dennis Burns. That’s generally a good thing, because fires in that mode tend to move more slowly.

A reconnaissance helicopter surveys fire activity in Gato Canyon on Saturday. Click to view larger
A reconnaissance helicopter surveys fire activity in Gato Canyon on Saturday. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

Late Saturday, fire spokesman Mike McMillan noted that “the sundowners don’t appear to be an issue tonight.”

A “burnout” or backfire was planned for Sunday on the west flank of the fire, near Refugio Canyon, he said. The action is intended to make it easier for crews to carve containment lines and tie in to the buffer created by the burn area from last year’s Sherpa Fire.

The east flank of the Whittier Fire was kept in check Saturday, and still had not crossed the bottom of the Bear Creek drainage. Supported by aircraft, crews have been making direct attacks on the flames from the top of the ridge and the bottom of the canyon.

On the southern flank of the fire, above canyon neighborhoods west of Goleta, days of effort have gone into building defenses against downhill runs of the flames.

“We’ve done a tremendous amount of prep work, not just today, but over the entire length of this fire,” said Larry Savage, deputy incident commander.

“We’ve had half a dozen tankers and large helicopter tankers dropping fire retardant in that area to slow down and keep in check the flames.”

Numerous bulldozer lines also have been carved into the terrain.

The northwest flank of the Whittier Fire as seen from Highway 154 in the Santa Ynez Valley. Click to view larger
The northwest flank of the Whittier Fire as seen from Highway 154 in the Santa Ynez Valley. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

“In anticipation of the increased fire weather with the sundowners, a couple days ago we actually increased our staffing and ordered up engines specifically for doing structure protection and protecting those houses and agricultural resources,” he added.

Von Tillow said fire managers need to get through the weekend before setting a target date for full containment of the blaze.

The status of evacuation areas would be re-evaluated Sunday, he said.

Evacuation orders remained in effect for Highway 154 from Armour Ranch to Paradise roads in the Santa Ynez Valley; West Camino Cielo from Highway 154 to the Winchester Canyon Gun Club; Paradise Road from Highway 154 to the first river crossing; Kinevan Road; and the area from Winchester Canyon Road west to El Capitán Ranch Road, excluding the communities of Wagon Wheel, Langlo Ranch Road and Winchester Commons.

The American Red Cross of Central California-Pacific Coast Chapter has been operating an evacuation center at San Marcos High School, at 4750 Hollister Ave. in Santa Barbara.

A U.S. Forest Service engine crew keeps a watchful eye on flames below West Camino Cielo. Click to view larger
A U.S. Forest Service engine crew keeps a watchful eye on flames below West Camino Cielo. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

More than 1,900 firefighters have been assigned to the Whittier Fire, including personnel who had been released from the Alamo Fire that is nearing full containment east of Santa Maria. The Alamo Fire started two days before the Whittier Fire, has burned nearly 29,000 acres, and was 96 percent contained on Sunday.

Also assigned to the Whittier Fire were 145 fire engines, 39 hand crews, 18 bulldozers, 16 helicopters and 30 water tenders, four fixed-wing tankers and four masticators.

Highway 154 remained closed between Highway 246 in Santa Ynez and Foothill Road in Santa Barbara, and many local roads within the evacuation areas are also closed, including West Camino Cielo at Highway 154, Kinevan Road at Highway 154, Farren Road at Vereda del Padre, and Old San Marcos Road at Via Parva.

Fire officials said Highway 154 may reopen Sunday evening.

West Camino Cielo remains closed from Refugio Road east to the fire.

A U.S. Forest Service bulldozer cuts a line through vegetation to create a safety line below West Camino Cielo. Click to view larger
A U.S. Forest Service bulldozer cuts a line through vegetation to create a safety line below West Camino Cielo. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

» Click here for a map of current road closures from the Santa Barbara County Public Works Department.

» Click here for up-to-date highway closure information from Caltrans District 5.

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Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Smoke frome the Whittier Fire casts a pall over the Devereux Slough in this view from a Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Aero Squadron aircraft. Click to view larger
Smoke frome the Whittier Fire casts a pall over the Devereux Slough in this view from a Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Aero Squadron aircraft. (Bill Talanian photo)
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