The first 24 hours of the Whittier Fire, which started at 1:45 p.m. on Saturday, July 8 — as a heat wave breached 100 degrees and with forecasted sundowners on the way — have proved to be the wildfire’s most dangerous. Within minutes, the blaze forced the evacuation of thousands of campers in and around Cachuma Lake Recreation Area and nearby Paradise Road, leaving eerie ghost towns of pitched tents and picnic tables littered with leftover lunch as motorists sped away, towing RV trailers, awnings twisted in the wind. Across Highway 154, on the back slope of the Santa Ynez mountain range, is Camp Whittier, where the fire originated. Michael Baker, CEO of the United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County, which owns the camp, said half a dozen staffers and 80 campers were able to escape with only moments to spare. The fire destroyed one residence and a maintenance shed, but other buildings survived, which Baker credited to recent brush-clearing. Baker didn’t know what started the blaze and has not been allowed into the area. “The cause remains under investigation,” said Andrew Madsen, an information officer with the U.S. Forest Service, the fire’s lead agency.
From Camp Whittier, the conflagration spread rapidly eastward, trapping dozens of children and counselors at nearby Circle V Ranch Camp and destroying more structures before jumping into the next canyon, at Rancho Alegre, where it consumed more structures, numerous vehicles, and turned hills of rolling green chaparral into an ashen moonscape. Volunteers from animal welfare organizations rushed to rescue the many animals, large and small, trapped in the surrounding areas.
By Paul Wellman