Weather Shift Brings Greater Containment to Whittier Fire

Crews Reach 25 Percent Containment, Fire Continues to Creep South

Firefighting helicopters work the Whittier Fire Sunday July 9, 2017
Paul Wellman

[UPDATE: 11:30 p.m., July 10]

After two days of shifting winds and hot temperatures, a gradual change in weather has created relatively favorable conditions for air and ground crews to contain 25 percent of the Whittier Fire’s perimeter. With smoke from the fire being pushed north and east over the burn area, firefighters worked in the shade of the smoke plume and were able to establish containment lines directly along the fire’s edge, roughly along Highway 154 where the conflagration first broke out.

With the northern fire perimeter secured, crews are using West Camino Cielo Road to stage operations to contain the Whittier Fire’s east-west growth. Bulldozer crews are fortifying an eastern flank traversing ridges spanning from Highway 154 up to Santa Ynez Ridge, where just yesterday a DC-10 had been painting the ridge with fire retardant, with ground and air support closely monitoring near Winchester Gun Club. To the west, early fire lines were expanded, and a complete fire break was scouted from containment lines near Highway 154 up to the ridge near Santa Ynez and Broadcast Peaks, where telecommunications equipment came under siege over the weekend.

Rancho Alegre after the Whittier Fire Sunday, July 9, 2017.
Paul Wellman

While the fire continues to slowly back down the southern slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains and into the foothills, fire managers are collaborating with property owners in the area to develop fire breaks above orchards and through chaparral. As the fire makes its way down Gato, Winchester, and Glen Annie Canyons, these fire breaks stand between the flames and populous western Goleta to the south.

A map of the Alamo and Whittier Fires in relation to one and other; the Alamo Fire stands at 20% contained while as of Monday evening, the Whittier Fire is 25% contained.

Mild temperatures are forecasted for the remainder of the week, with winds expected to cooperate as an onshore flow holds. In addition to earlier closures and restrictions, authorities have closed Salvar Road at Via Gaitero in order to stage more necessary equipment near the base of Highway 154.

[UPDATE: noon, July 10]

Firefighting helicopters work the Whittier Fire Sunday July 9, 2017
Paul Wellman

The Whittier Fire that originated near Cachuma Lake grew by about 3,000 acres between Sunday’s unified command press conference and Monday morning’s 7 a.m. briefing, bringing the total size of the involved area to 10,823 acres. That’s up from 7,800 the day before. The fire remains 5 percent contained. The bulk of that new growth was on the fire’s easterly and westerly flanks. To the west, there are the remains of last year’s Sherpa Fire, which should slow the rate of acceleration. On the east, however, there’s old growth areas that haven’t burned for nearly 62 years. That’s more problematic.

The good news is that back-country temperatures have begun to drop and the winds are calm. No sundowner winds — which blow down the mountainsides and out to the coast — are forecast in the next several days. There are indications, however, of possible late afternoon thunderstorms 20 or so miles to the east. These storms can generate peripheral wind patterns that gust up to 30-40 miles an hour. That happened last night. At the time, the incident command did not have a meteorologist on hand, so the sudden winds were unexpected. Since then, however, a meteorologist has been posted with the fire’s incident command. If those winds arrive, they will at least be anticipated.

The DC-10 makes a drop on the Whittier Fire as seen from the Winchester Gun Club Sunday, July 9, 2017.
Paul Wellman

With 40 fires blowing up around the state, the competition for personnel, fixed-wing firefighting planes, fire engines, and bulldozers has been intense. “We are not getting everything we are used to getting in the past,” said Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Pat McElroy. During last year’s Sherpa blaze, for example, there were no competing fires. U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Andrew Madsen noted that when the fires started — Santa Maria’s Alamo Fire as well as the Whittier — “It was an ‘order everything you can get’ situation.” In terms of how much was made available to the Whittier Fire, Madsen said, “We’re getting everything we need.”

While the Whittier has drooped well over the ridgeline that separates Santa Barbara’s back country from its more vulnerable, populated and built up front country, Chief McElroy noted that the fire still has several ridgelines it needs to cross before it has a straight line down the mountain slope to the coast.

[UPDATE: 9 a.m., July 10]

The Hoffmann family watch the Whittier Fire from Cathedral Oaks Sunday, July 9, 2017.
Paul Wellman

With the Whittier Fire burning on both sides of the Santa Ynez Range — now estimated to be 10,823 acres in size — fire managers assembled a unified command this morning composed of Los Padres National Forest, Santa Barbara County Fire and Sheriff’s departments, and CalFire, reported Jennifer Gray with the U.S. Forest Service.

A collapsing thunderstorm front 20 miles away sent the fire whooshing to the west on Sunday. In extremely rugged terrain that has not burned since the Refugio Fire in 1955, firefighters are on the burn edge where possible today, with retardant and water drops from the giant DC-10, helicopters, and fixed-wing airplanes. As well as homes and buildings, the Edison towers and communications infrastructure are targets for protection.

In the foothills that face the western edge of the City of Goleta, the fire front is slowly moving down the slopes of Gato, Winchester, and Glen Annie canyons from the ridgetops. A fuel break is being worked out with property owners. Winds are light and variable, temps 80-85 degrees, and humidity at 30-40 percent.

A 3-D rendering of the Whittier Fire's boundaries as of 10 p.m. PDT July 9, 2017

Mandatory evacuation orders remain in place along highway 154 between Armour Ranch and Paradise roads, West Camino Cielo from 154 to the Winchester Gun Club, and for Kinevan and Farren roads. Residents from Las Varas to Winchester canyons between the 101 and West Camino Cielo are on evacuation warning, which means to be ready to leave if ordered to do so, and also along Paradise Road from the 154 to the first river crossing. Highway 154 remains closed.

[UPDATE: 4 p.m., July 9]

More details about the Whittier Fire have emerged as incident commanders convened a press conference in Goleta this afternoon to lay out the extent of the burned acreage, their plan of attack in the coming days, and yesterday’s rescue of approximately 90 kids and several dozen Circle V ranch camp staffers and counselors temporarily trapped by flames. Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson explained that the rapidly growing wildfire, fueled by drought-parched vegetation in an area that had not burned in more than 60 years, “quickly outflanked” first responders as they arrived to Circle V, its only access road enveloped on both sides and cut off by burning trees felled by fire. Hunkered down in a back barrack, “they rode it out,” Peterson said, until the fire passed through the area, the road was cleared, and a bus arrived to shuttle everybody to safety.

Administrators estimate that 20 structures have been lost to the fire, all of them located in and around Camp Whittier, where the conflagration sparked to life yesterday afternoon as sundowner winds kicked in and temperatures reached 110 degrees. A U.S. Forest Service team was dispatched this afternoon to make a fuller assessment of structure losses. The fire is currently threatening structures near Farren Road, in western Goleta.

The Whittier grew overnight to nearly 8,000 acres as it crested over the mountain ridge and started slowly burning into Santa Barbara’s front country. Fortunately, the red-flag winds died down during the night and today’s highs were roughly ten degrees cooler than yesterday. “It’s cooled off for sure,” said Capt. Dave Zaniboni, “and there’s more humidity today — that’s the big thing.”

The Whittier Fire's boundaries and effective evacuation warnings and orders as of 6:26 p.m. on July 9th

At the press briefing, Peterson said that incident commanders had ordered up ten more strike teams (which equals 50 fully staffed firetrucks) for disbursement along the wildfire’s front-country edge in western Goleta. At roughly the same time, however, a new Central Coast blaze — the Stone Fire — ignited in San Luis Obispo County, reportedly threatening several structures east of Santa Margarita, prompting regional commanders to divert forces away from the Whittier. “Structure threat takes precedence,” Zaniboni said. “They divert aircraft all the time. There’s a lot of competition in the state right now for resources,” including the nearby Alamo Fire, burning near the San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara county line. That fire has consumed more than 28,000 acres at an estimated cost of $3.4 million so far.

Sheriff Bill Brown reiterated that Highway 154 is shut down between State Route 246 and Foothill Road and “we anticipate it will remain closed for several days.” He also stated that evacuation warnings remain between Farren Road and Winchester Canyon, meaning people in the area need to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. “If you are given the order to evacuate, please do so immediately,” he said.

The cause of the Whittier Fire has not been released and remains under investigation.

[UPDATE: 9:30 a.m., July 9]

Public safety officials have called a mandatory evacuation for Farren Road in western Goleta and evacuation warnings from Las Varas to Winchester canyons as the Whittier Fire grew overnight, cresting over the ridge line from the backcountry and growing to nearly 8,000 acres.

According to an incident update this morning, 400 firefighting personnel are assigned to the wind-driven wildfire, which started at 1:45 p.m. on July 8 near Camp Whittier, located along Highway 154 near Cachuma Lake Recreation Area.

“Our priority today is to hit the fire hard on the south side [of the mountains] with aircraft,” said Capt. Dave Zaniboni, County Fire’s pubic information officer. He added that the fire “slowed down quite a bit” overnight as sundowner winds backed off considerably. Suppression efforts have achieved 5-percent containment, all of it along a short stretch between Highway 154 and Cachuma Lake.

Jackson Taylor puts a few family items in his car during an evacuation warning for the Winchester Canyon area as the Whittier Fire makes its way down into front country..
Paul Wellman

Highway 154 remains closed from State Route 246 to Foothill Road. An evacuation center for the South Coast has been set up at San Marcos High School, 4750 Hollister Ave., and the north evacuation shelter remains open at Santa Ynez Elementary, 3325 Pine Street.

Approximately 5,000 firefighters are battling 14 large wildfires in California.

[UPDATE, 9:20 p.m., July 8]

Residents along the Gaviota Coast are reporting that Whittier Fire has crested the ridge and is now creeping down the front country in the Dos Pueblos Ranch area. “I could see the edge of the fire on the [oceanside] of the ridge,” said Janet Erro, who lives on La Paloma Ranch, just east of Refugio State Beach. As she drove home northbound on Highway 101 earlier this evening, she said five or six California Highway Patrol vehicles were parked along the highway near Dos Pueblos. Residents in the area have not yet been notified to evacuate. Hot northerly winds earlier in the day have subsided considerably. “It’s dead calm right now,” she said.

In Capt. Zaniboni’s evening update, he confirmed the fire had “slopped over” into the front country and now encompassed 5,400 acres. It had overtaken Condor Peak, above Farren Road, on the western edge of Goleta. Aircraft continued to douse the fire until sunset, and one helicopter remained on duty to drop water during night hours.

The morning should greet 10 more strike teams of Type-3 engines, handcrews, and a renewed aerial assault.

The burn map for the Whittier Fire as of July 8th at 11:08 p.m.

[UPDATE, 8 p.m., July 8]

All 90 campers and 50 staff members and camp counselors have been safely evacuated from Circle V Ranch, located near Camp Whittier. “Campers were escorted by fire department personnel and taken to Old Mission Santa Ines in nearby Solvang,” according to an email from Circle V. “[Camp operators have] made bus transportation arrangements for all campers to be returned to their point-of-origin in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties and picked up there by their parents/guardians; campers from Santa Barbara County may be picked up at the Old Mission Santa Ines. The staff and campers are very grateful to the first responders who kept them safe during this evacuation . . . and ask for continued positive prayers and thoughts for all who are involved in public safety.”

As of 8 p.m. the wind-driven wildfire had grown to 3,200 acres.

[UPDATE, 6:30 p.m., July 8]

Camp Whittier and Rancho Alegre, where many Santa Barbara schoolchildren spend a week at “Outdoor School,” are relatively close to the 154, and all campers have been evacuated. About a mile up the road is Circle V Ranch Camp where Forest Service firefighters are sheltering in place with 80 camping children. Rescue vehicles have been unable to get up the road as the Whittier Fire lies to both sides, reported Capt. Zaniboni. All are safe, he said. All campers at Cachuma Lake campground have left.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story located The Outdoor School at Camp Whittier; it is at nearby Rancho Alegre.

The smell of smoke has drifted into Santa Barbara with orange clouds hugging the Santa Ynez Range. The fire is reported to be about 500 acres.

Santa Barbara Sheriff's vehicle overtaken by flames; the deputy was unharmed.
Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Dept.

[UPDATE, 5:15 p.m., July 8]

Burning out of control along the backside of the coastal mountain range, the Whittier Fire “is another major wildfire, and it’s going to burn for days,” said Capt. Dave Zaniboni, a public information officer with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “There’s just not enough resources right now on this fire. The [air] tankers are working both fires.” Since Friday afternoon, aircraft and boots on the ground have been dedicated to the Alamo Fire, which has already consumed more than 19,000 acres along the Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo county line. Fire officials have been busy divvying up suppression efforts since Whittier sparked to life around 2 p.m. today.

Zaniboni said the Whittier Fire started near Camp Whittier, off Highway 154, and is burning east along remote, mostly inaccessible backcountry “way off the road.” The wildfire, he added, has not crested into Santa Barbara’s front county; however, forecasted sundowner winds may push the fire in that direction.

Wall of flame from Whittier Fire
Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Dept.


A fire near Camp Whittier along Santa Barbara’s Highway 154 has prompted the Sheriff’s Office to announce an immediate evacuation of the Cachuma Lake area. Phones have been pinging all over the county to state the highway is currently closed through to Foothill/Cathedral Oaks road. The temperature is in the high 90s, but winds are relatively calm, according to the fire weather websites.

Paradise Road and West Camino Cielo communities are under an evacuation warning, which is a request to be prepared to leave the house if asked to do so. Those with special needs or who feel worried about the fire threat are advised to leave now.

This report will be updated as information becomes available.


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