The Whittier Fire

The Story of Near Escapes, Trapped Children, Heroic Acts, and an Endless Fire Season

Firefighters assess their approach to the Whittier Fire as it races up oak-covered slopes alongside Highway 154.
Paul Wellman

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.

Whittier Fire beside Highway 154
Paul Wellman

Two Santa Barbara County Fire Department veterans said the Whittier grew faster than any wildfire in recent memory. In the coming days, weakened tree trunks and destabilized terrain will increasingly threaten firefighter safety. “A lot of oak trees are coming down because they’ve been burning for three or four days,” said Dennis Burns, a fire behavior specialist, briefing the night-shift crew. “The terrain is very bad, so do not get complacent,” added John “Pancho” Smith, Santa Barbara District Ranger of Los Padres National Forest.

Crews and administrators are working the blaze with fewer resources and battling a much heavier load of combustible material than years past. Of the 14 active wildfires in the state, four are bigger than 10,000 acres, and two of those, the Whittier and Alamo fires, are in Santa Barbara County. Approaching 30,000 acres in size, the Alamo Fire is the Golden State’s most massive active wildfire.

Since Sunday, temperatures dropped considerably as the marine layer thickened, helping to cool down Whittier’s scary weekend climb over the ridge, which forced evacuations along western Goleta’s Farren Road.

While evacuation mandates and warnings are still in place as of publication, the fire is 48 percent contained. There have been no reported injuries.

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


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