Monday, September 25 , 2017, 3:31 am | Fair 55º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Firefighters Gaining Ground in Battle Against Stubborn Whittier Fire

The 18,331-acre blaze was 62% contained Monday night; roadways reopen and some evacuation orders get lifted

Portable water tanks for use with a temporary sprinkler system were placed at the Cold Spring Tavern for structure protection. Stagecoach Road was reopened Monday and the establishment seems to be out of the woods. Click to view larger
Portable water tanks for use with a temporary sprinkler system were placed at the Cold Spring Tavern for structure protection. Stagecoach Road was reopened Monday and the establishment seems to be out of the woods.  (U.S. Forest Service photo)

Firefighters appear to have momentum in their efforts to quell the Whittier Fire, which has been burning in the mountains between Lake Cachuma and the South Coast for 10 days.

As of Monday night, the blaze that began July 8 had blackened 18,3311 acres and was 62-percent contained, compared to 49 percent in the morning.

Crews on Monday picked up where the previous night shift left off and completed the containment line on the northeast flank.

"We feel good about that area," Incident Commander Mark von Tillow told Noozhawk. "We kind of eliminated that threat of spread to the east."

That mission accomplished, firefighters shifted their focus to the northwest end, where the heat and steep, rocky terrain made the going slow and tough, von Tillow said.

It’s one of the few places the fire grew overnight Sunday, along with pockets along the south side, which is along the front country west of Goleta.

"There was a lot of good work in the northwest," von Tillow said. "It looked like a lot less smoke than the last few days. It’s just really tough country."

The last remaining challenge for firefighters is getting containment along the southern flank, where the fire has burned part way down the mountains and generally been held in abeyance by a persistent marine layer.

"I’m hoping in a couple days," von Tillow said where asked about when evacuation orders might be lifted for communities below the southern flank.

A Whittier Fire progression map shows the blaze burned thousands of acres the first day (in red) and most recently expanded on the northwest and southern edges (in green). Click to view larger
A Whittier Fire progression map shows the blaze burned thousands of acres the first day (in red) and most recently expanded on the northwest and southern edges (in green).  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

"We had some crews hiking up there into Gato Canyon to get to the black and start building a direct hand line towards the Sherpa burn area," von Tillow added. "We’re going to put some folks down in there tomorrow, a little more than we’ve had, now that we’ve got some of this other stuff locked off.

"We do have favorable weather, and I can’t disagree with that, so we’ve just got to figure out where we can go and anchor this thing."

Von Tillow said fire officials are targeting the end of the month to gain full containment.

"We're hoping for an earlier date, but to put a date out there, I’d put it at July 30," he said.

Weather conditions look favorable for the next week, with daytime highs along the coast in the 70s, and night and morning low clouds and fog. No significant wind events are expected.

Some of the longtime road closures and evacuation orders for the fire were lifted Sunday and Monday, as Highway 154 and Paradise Road reopened to the public.

Whittier Fire’s Unified Command focused Monday’s firefighting efforts on the northwest and eastern sides of the blaze, which were uncontained. Click to view larger
Whittier Fire’s Unified Command focused Monday’s firefighting efforts on the northwest and eastern sides of the blaze, which were uncontained.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

The historic Cold Spring Tavern on Stagecoach Road had portable water tanks and a sprinkler system set up for structure protection, and the roadways leading from Highway 154 were reopened Monday.

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

The evacuation order was lifted for part of West Camino Cielo, which is open from Highway 154 to the Winchester Gun Club, including Kinevan Road; Rosario Park, all of Stagecoach Road and Cold Springs Road were opened, the U.S. Forest Service announced. 

The evacuation warning for Cachuma Village stayed in effect. 

Mandatory evacuation orders also remained in effect for West Camino Cielo from the Winchester Gun Club to Refugio 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.

Von Tillow and other fire officials said at a briefing at midday Monday that the north end of the fire, which runs along Lake Cachuma and Highway 154,  remains contained, and the eastern side likely will be fully contained by Tuesday. 

The fire slowed down as it hit the Gap Fire burn area on the southeast and the Sherpa Fire burn area on the southwest.  

Those newer fuels don’t react the same and the fire history there was a blessing in disguise, von Tillow said.

The southern edge of the fire is still uncontrolled and has a lot of personnel assigned to it, including crews in the canyons west of Goleta, where many South Coast residents have been evacuated.

Damage assessments are being conducted throughout the burn area, and at last count there were 16 primary residences destroyed and one damaged, 30 outbuildings destroyed (garages, sheds or anything that’s not a residence) and six more damaged, officials said.

There haven’t been many injuries, but a few hundred firefighters have been treated for poison oak, von Tillow noted. The heat-related illness cases have started dropping off after the heat wave, he added.

Unified Command for the fire includes CalFire, the U.S. Forest Service and the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Noozhawk Executive Editor Tom Bolton contributed to this report.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli 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.

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