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Sunday, February 17 , 2019, 2:38 pm | Light Rain 55º


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

Acreage rises to 10,823, containment at only 5 percent for blaze burning in mountains between Lake Cachuma and Goleta

Flames from the Whittier Fire threatened the antennas and other broadcast equipment on Santa Ynez Peak on Sunday. Click to view larger
Flames from the Whittier Fire threatened the antennas and other broadcast equipment on Santa Ynez Peak on Sunday. (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)

Firefighters were settling in Sunday evening for what figures to be a lengthy battle to tame the Whittier Fire, which continued to burn largely out of control in the mountains between Lake Cachuma and Goleta.

Crews were being hampered by high temperatures, rugged terrain and thinly-stretched resources in their efforts to stop the blaze, which had blackened some 10,823 acres since it broke out Saturday. Containment remained at 5 percent Monday morning.

Some 150 structures remained threatened.

“The biggest challenge right now is the terrain, and getting the crews in there,” said Mark von Tillow, Los Padres Santa Barbara Ranger District division chief for the U.S. Forest Service, which was taking over Sunday evening as incident commander. “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 it could easily take a couple weeks to fully contain the fire.

On the fire lines Sunday afternoon, temperatures remained in the 90s, but the winds were relatively calm.

The west flank of the fire seemed to be transitioning toward a mop-up phase, with helicopters, hand crews and brush trucks likely spending several days dousing hot spots.

On the eastern flank, flames continued moving down a canyon in the direction of Rancho San Marcos Golf Course, but were not making any big runs.

A helicopter makes a water drop to protect broadcast equipment and antennas on Broadcast Peak. Click to view larger
A helicopter makes a water drop to protect broadcast equipment and antennas on Broadcast Peak. (Tom Mugduno photo)

On the south flank along the ridgetop, flames were threatening Santa Ynez Peak, home to several antennas and broadcast facilities.

Firefighters were making heavy use of retardant drops by helicopters and air tankers, including the mammoth DC-10s.

Other helicopters were dousing flames with water, while bulldozers and firefighters on foot were scraping out containment lines.

Von Tillow was among a group of fire and law enforcement officials who briefed reporters on the fire’s status at a press conference in Goleta Sunday afternoon.

Likening the blaze to last year’s Sherpa Fire, von Tillow said it “very easily” could take two weeks or longer to completely contain the blaze.

The Whittier Fire left a barren landscape along Highway 154 in the Santa Ynez Valley. Click to view larger
The Whittier Fire left a barren landscape along Highway 154 in the Santa Ynez Valley. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

“We’re probably going to go back to what we did in the Sherpa. It’s going to be very similar conditions until we can get some crews in here,” von Tillow said. “It’s rugged terrain, it is very hard. The brush is 20 to 25 feet tall. and it’s not made for bulldozers — it’s hand crews.”

Fire officials have requested 20 additional hand crews to help with the grueling task of building containment lines through the steep terrain.

More than 700 fire personnel are assigned to the blaze.

A key area of concern on the fire is the southern flank, where Saturday night flames topped the ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains and began presenting a threat to populated areas in western Goleta.

Most of the fire was near the top of the ridge, although the area burned in that “slop-over” was estimated at 1,500 acres.

Charred hillsides from the Whittier Fire are visible, with Lake Cachuma in the distance. Click to view larger
Charred hillsides from the Whittier Fire are visible, with Lake Cachuma in the distance. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

“That fire is going to continue to back down the mountain (toward the coast),” said Jim Harris, Los Padres National Forest deputy fire chief.

He noted that the burn area from last year’s Sherpa Fire “is going to act as a good barrier for us, keeping it from spreading to the west.”

Similarly, the burn area from the 2008 Gap Fire, although partially regrown, should still provide a barrier of sorts to the east, he said.

“We have those barriers, but unfortunately we have no barriers between those,” he said, noting that flames would continue to back slowly down the mountain.

“The difference between this fire and those other fires is those were wind-driven, sundowner fires,” Harris said. “With this fire, we have a normal diurnal weather pattern, so we’re going to have onshore winds, which should help this fire back down, and not run off the mountain like we’ve seen in previous incidents.”

Fire officials will be using bulldozers, hand crews and brush trucks along the lower reaches of the mountains to construct containment lines through avocado groves and ranchland, he said.

A DC-10 drops a load of retardant on the Whittier Fire on Sunday. Click to view larger
A DC-10 drops a load of retardant on the Whittier Fire on Sunday. (Bunny DeLorie photo)

They will be assisted by helicopters making precise drops of fire retardant.

In the populated residential areas of western Goleta, 10 strike teams of five engines each have been deployed to provide structure protection, he said.

North of the ridge, it is a different firefight, von Tillow said.

Flames have been churning through an area that hasn’t burned in more than 60 years, a situation made worse by the drought.

“On the back side of mountain, the lack of fire history is going to continue to be a challenge for us,” he said. “This is all old-growth chaparral and heavy tree mortality with the oaks on both sides.

“So that’s going be wind-affected every afternoon by those onshore, upriver winds. And so we have two different fire environments that we’re going to be working.”

Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson noted that, at the outset of the fire, firefighters and law enforcement officers were challenged by the need to rescue dozens of children and staff from the Circle V Ranch camp, which was beset by intense flames.

Those who were trapped “rode it out” with firefighters for several hours before they were able to be brought to safety, Peterson said, noting that no one was injured.

Fire has damaged or destroyed some 20 structures, mainly in the area of the Rancho Alegre Outdoor School and Boy Scout Camp and Lake Cachuma, officials confirmed, but details were not available.

Several areas, including the Highway 154 corridor, remained under evacuation orders, while others such as some areas of Goleta below the fire, had evacuation warnings in effect.

Some 3,500 people were evacuated due to the fire as of Sunday afternoon, according to Sheriff Bill Brown.

Evacuations centers have been established at San Marcos High School near Goleta and at Santa Ynez School.

Highway 154 is expected to remain closed for several days from Paradise Road to Highway 246.

A fire camp was being established at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta.

Noozhawk outdoors writer Ray Ford reported from the fire lines.

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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.

Sunday’s map of the Whittier Fire and its evacuation areas. Click to view larger
Sunday’s map of the Whittier Fire and its evacuation areas. (Contributed)

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