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Weeks After Suppression Efforts Ended, Full Containment Still Not Declared for Whittier Fire

U.S. Forest Service officials hope an aerial survey for hot spots this week will allow them to make the call

The Whittier Fire burn area as seen from the ridge of the Santa Ynez Range, looking toward the coast. The 18,430-acre blaze remains at 87-percent containment weeks after all active firefighting ended due to the rugged terrain on the fire’s southern flank. Click to view larger
The Whittier Fire burn area as seen from the ridge of the Santa Ynez Range, looking toward the coast. The 18,430-acre blaze remains at 87-percent containment weeks after all active firefighting ended due to the rugged terrain on the fire’s southern flank. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

While most people would consider the Whittier Fire over and done weeks ago, the 18,430-acre blaze that straddled the Santa Ynez Mountains actually remains stuck at 87-percent containment.

Holding up a declaration of full containment has been a 5-mile-long section of fire line on the rugged south flank of the fire, in the Condor Point area west of Goleta, according to Pancho Smith, Santa Barbara District ranger for Los Padres National Forest.

“What I’ve been waiting for is to get rain on it, and it looks like we did last night,” Smith told Noozhawk on Monday, a day after thunderstorms swept through the county and dropped about a quarter inch of rain on the fire area.

The most recent aerial survey of the fire — using helicopters that employ infrared technology at night to detect hot spots — “still had a little bit of heat up above that line,” Smith said.

No recent survey flights have been conducted, Smith said, because the resources needed to do them have been tied up on active wildfires burning elsewhere in California.

“It’s been hard to get a bird down here to fly that at night,” he said.

Smith said a new infrared survey flight has been requested, and he hopes it will occur in the next few days.

It’s likely full containment will be declared once he gets the results of that flight, he said.

There have been no recent reports of fire activity on the coastal side of the ridge, Smith said, noting that charred tree trunks can smolder for weeks or even months.

Lake Cachuma is visible beyond the Whittier Fire burn area. Click to view larger
Lake Cachuma is visible beyond the Whittier Fire burn area.  (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

The blaze remains in patrol status, meaning there is no active fire suppression occurring.

“About once a week, we send either an engine or a patrol, and they get up on top and they (survey) the entire thing,” Smith said.

A few hot spots or “smokers” have been observed in the fire area on the north side of the ridge, closer to Lake Cachuma, he said, but all have been well within the fire perimeter and containment lines.

The fire broke out July 8 near Camp Whittier and Lake Cachuma in the Santa Ynez Valley.

It spread quickly, driven by gusty conditions, and prompted hundreds of evacuations and road closures on both sides of the mountains.

A total of 16 residences were destroyed and another one was damaged, and 30 outbuildings were destroyed, with six more damaged.

The fire heavily damaged The Outdoor School and the Rancho Alegre Boy Scout camp, where most buildings burned to the ground.

Also damaged were Camp Whitter and the Circle V Ranch Camp.

Investigators have determined that the blaze was “human caused,” Smith said, but no details have been released, and it officially remains "under investigation."

It is unknown if any civil or criminal legal action will be taken, Smith added.

“That’s up to law enforcement,” he added.

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.

Amidst the skeletal remains of charred bushes and trees, new vegetation is emerging in the Whittier Fire area. Click to view larger
Amidst the skeletal remains of charred bushes and trees, new vegetation is emerging in the Whittier Fire area. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photos)
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