A Type 1 fire engine and its crew prepare for and await the southward march of the Whittier Fire late Friday night as the fire grew by over 3,000 acres, igniting the southern slopes of the Santa Ynez Range.
Whittier Fire Grows by 3,300 Acres Friday Night
Containment Drops from 52 to 38 Percent
Saturday, July 15, 2017
The bad news is that the Whittier Fire, now almost a week old, grew by nearly 3,300 acres Friday night in the face of sundowner winds blowing down the mountains toward the ocean. That total size now is 17,364 acres, up from 13,199 the night before and 7,800 the day it started. The latest containment figures indicate the fire is now 38 percent contained as opposed to 52 percent the night before. The bulk of the growth took place along the fire’s eastern and western flanks; it still remains miles above the neighborhoods ordered evacuated yesterday. While the most of the fire remains sandwiched between Highway 154 and West Camino Cielo, roughly one-fifth of its mass has slopped over West Camino Cielo to the south. According to the Forest Service, the Whittier Fire now has a price tag of $12 million.
Whittier Fire, Day 7
Fire crews focus on reinforcing lines ahead of the southern front of the fire while preparing to defend homes from El Capitan to Winchester Canyon.
The good news is that the winds did not blow as fiercely as anticipated last night and that a marine layer showed up around 1 a.m., which helped retard the fire’s rate of growth. No new structures were reported burned. Spokespeople for Incident Command say the combination of high clouds and the thick carpet of smoke generated by the fire will help keep temperatures lower, at least for the beginning of the day. As long as today’s marine layer holds, that should help tamp things down. But today’s sea fog is expected to hover at 800 feet, at least till it burns off. Yesterday, it started at 1,200. That difference in elevation makes a difference. It governs how the fire will be molested by natural forces at the higher elevations. Mild sundowners are predicted again for later this evening.
By Brandon Yadegari
Hotshot crews make their way out of El Capitan Ranch in a trio of Type 3 engines after completing fire breaks below the active edge of the fire.
“We’re going to get a fire fight today,” declared Incident Commander Mark von Tillow with the U.S. Forest Service. “That thing is coming down the hill.” Von Tillow’s remarks were made at a morning briefing among assembled firefighters at Dos Pueblos High School, where the Incident Command has set up shop. Helping with the fight is the addition of 400 new crew.
Whittier fire managers work new crews that arrived overnight into the day’s rota.
One of the clear subtexts at the brief meeting was the critical importance of inter-agency cooperation. With so many different firefighting agencies involved — as with any major wildland fire in California — that’s always important. But it’s become especially key given the high-profile food fight between the head of California’s Office of Emergency Services and the head of the U.S. Forest Service that erupted July 3. Cal-OES is complaining the feds have stiffed local firefighting agencies to the tune of $18 million; the feds are complaining the state has been grossly overcharging. These tensions, long simmering, came to an untimely head just as the map of California exploded in high-profile flames — 12 designated major as of today — and right before the Whittier broke out.
The fire is feasting in some areas on old fuels that have not burned since 1955 and in others where this year’s drought-busting rains have reaped a bumper crop of fire-loving grasses. With much of the terrain steep, crumbly, and inaccessible, fire crews have found it challenging to establish a safe toehold on their lines of containment. As feared, grass-fed flames spotted throughout the night, leaping in some instances as much as three-quarters of a mile from the northerly winds. The plan for Saturday is to bombard areas where the fire is expanding with as much retardant and water as possible. This will only slow the flames down, not put them out. The hope is that the retardant drops will make the fire’s expanding flanks safer for line crews to approach and contain. Deployed into today’s fray are 15 helicopters and six air tankers. Of those, one is classified as a Very Large Air Tanker, or VLAT. In addition, 103 engines have been assigned to the Whittier Fire, as have 18 bulldozers, and 38 fire crews. The total number of personnel assigned to fight Whittier is 1,612.
Firefighters were warned that the fire will lay low in gullies, ravines, and creek channels until they are whipped up by winds. But the weight of all that burning trees and brush — coupled with the laws of gravity — causes flaming masses to tumble downslope. If and when the winds kick into gear, these flames will leap accordingly.
Friday night, two helicopters equipped with night-vision technology were deployed to keep flaring and spotting at bay. Thus far, it appears the fire still remains significantly upslope from the Edwards Reservoir, located in Gato Canyon, between El Capitan and Las Varas canyons. As of this writing, this appears to be the lowest descent of the fire. That’s more than 2,000 feet above sea level.
In the meantime, engine crews have been prepping around suburban subdivisions, laying down hose in preparation for the potential onslaught of flame. Some residents heeded yesterday’s evacuation orders; others remained behind to fight the fire. One resident in El Capitan Canyon expressed optimism that enough fire breaks had been established and enough water resources were available to ride out the storm.
By Brandon Yadegari
Fire crews prepare to defend properties in El Capitan Ranch from the advancing Whittier Fire on Friday, July 14th.
Around Goleta last night, as the fire seemed to wrap around three sections of the horizon, residents grew fearful. “It was scary,” said one walking along Padova Drive. Many have expressed their thanks to the firefighters, and fire spokesperson Mary Sullivan reassured that the crews were very well taken care of for food. “We really appreciate all the gifts,” she said, “but we’re totally taken care of with a full-time staff prepping food.” She said the firefighters’ lunches are often in the 6,000-8,000 calorie range.
A handful of children who had raised funds for the firefighters with a lemonade stand got cheers from the Whittier crew.