Friday, September 22 , 2017, 6:22 pm | Fair 69º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Whittier Fire Puts on Menacing Show as Sundowner Winds Whip Flames

Acreage charred swells to 17,364; containment drops to 35%

 
Map of the Whittier Fire as of Saturday morning. Click to view larger
Map of the Whittier Fire as of Saturday morning.

Flames from the Whittier Fire continued to chew through the mountain-side chaparral Friday night, putting on a menacing light show for residents on both sides of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Throngs of people crowded vantage points along the South Coast to view the fiery spectacle, while intense flames were also visible from communities in the Santa Ynez Valley.

A growing corps of firefighters — numbering more than 1,600 Friday night — continued their efforts to tame the week-old blaze as weather conditions became less favorable and evacuation areas were expanded.

The southwest flank of the blaze, burning in the upper reaches of El Capitán, Gato and Las Varas canyons, was particularly active as mild sundowner winds propelled the flames down the mountainside into steep terrain that had not burned for decades.

Firefighters were conducting some “burn-out” operations in that area Friday, aimed at stopping the fire’s progress, according to Leslie Auriemmo, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman.

The result was huge swaths of smoke extending for miles out into the ocean.

The previous two nights, the marine layer moved in during the early morning hours, causing fire activity to diminish. But that was not expected Friday or Saturday night, Auriemmo said.

Flames from the Whittier Fire burn Friday night in the hills behind El Capitán Ranch. Click to view larger
Flames from the Whittier Fire burn Friday night in the hills behind El Capitán Ranch. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

She noted that the sundowner winds could create conditions in which the fire would “spot” or leap ahead of the main fire front by up to a mile, and that the flames could travel as much as 2 mph.    

Auriemmo said the fire’s official stats were unchanged from earlier in the day — roughly 13,000 acres charred and 52 percent containment.

But by Saturday morning, the intensity of the night's burning was revealed: 17,364 acres blackened and containment dropping to 35 percent.

A key concern through the weekend is the forecast calling for a sundowner condition that has the potential to push the flames toward canyon neighborhoods west of Goleta.

The Whittier Fire was burning Friday above Las Flores Canyon west of Goleta. Also affected were El Capitán, Gato and Las Varas canyons. Click to view larger
The Whittier Fire was burning Friday above Las Flores Canyon west of Goleta. Also affected were El Capitán, Gato and Las Varas canyons. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

The forecast for both Friday and Saturday night was calling for north winds of 10-20 mph, with gusts to 35 mph.

A fleet of aircraft spent the day dropping retardant along the fire’s southern flank in anticipation of the weekend wind event, and bulldozers and hand crews worked to build and reinforce containment lines.

The fire also remained active on the eastern flank, prompting fire officials to upgrade an evacuation warning to an evacuation order for Paradise Road, from Highway 154 to the first Santa Ynez River crossing.

An additional 400 people joined the Whittier Fire battle Friday, many making the transition from the Alamo Fire east of Santa Maria, which was 92 percent contained.

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 community of Wagon Wheel, Langlo Ranch Road and Winchester Commons.

An aerial bomber drops a load of retardant on the southern flank of the Whittier Fire on Friday. Click to view larger
An aerial bomber drops a load of retardant on the southern flank of the Whittier Fire on Friday. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

The American Red Cross of Central California-Pacific Coast Chapter has been operating evacuation centers at San Marcos High School, at 4750 Hollister Ave. in Santa Barbara, and at the Minami Community Center, 600 W. Enos Drive in Santa Maria, for people displaced by the Whittier and Alamo fires. The Santa Maria shelter has since closed.

Some 1,240 firefighters have been assigned to the Whittier Fire, including personnel who had been released from the Alamo Fire.

Also assigned were 92 fire engines, 23 hand crews, 16 bulldozers, 12 helicopters and 23 water tenders. Fixed-wing tankers are available from local air bases as needed.

Highway 154 remained closed between Highway 246 in Santa Ynez and Foothill Road in Santa Barbara because of the fire, 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.

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

» 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.

» Click here to sign up for free Noozhawk breaking news text alerts to your phone.

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.

A crew from the Carlsbad Fire Department monitors the flames from the Whittier Fire on Friday from West Camino Cielo. Click to view larger
A crew from the Carlsbad Fire Department monitors the flames from the Whittier Fire on Friday from West Camino Cielo. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)
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