With sundowner winds up to 30 miles an hour predicted for Friday night, an augmented army of firefighters have amassed along the southern flanks of the Whittier Fire — first epicentered around Lake Cachuma — to keep the flames from leapfrogging down the steep canyon passes into residential Goleta neighborhoods and to Calle Real. Earlier today, 1,200 firefighters and crew were reportedly on hand to fight the Whittier Fire. By this evening at 7 o’clock, there were 1,612.
Earlier in the day, no fewer than 12 air tankers had been deployed, “painting” the fire into a box using thousands of gallons of bright orange retardant. Six extra Hot Shot crews were deployed as well. But since Whittier Fire started last Saturday afternoon, it’s grown in size from 7,800 acres to 13,200. In that time, a multi-jurisdictional team has managed to contain 52 percent of the fire, but it popped out of its eastern and western edges the night before. With sundowners running downslope with gusts as high as 30 miles an hour, it’s expected that the fire, drunk with fresh grasses, will “spot” and lurch downhill, moving at speeds of two miles an hour.
This year’s drought-busting winter rains helped dramatically augment the grassy fuel loads for both front and back country. According to one estimate, this year’s grass is about six-to-eight-times thicker and richer than normal. It’s so thick that it resists saturation by the air-dropped retardant, meaning that grass nearest the ground could catch fire even though grass on top is soaked.
Unlike daytime hours, air tankers are pulled from the sky when it’s dark. Only one fire-fighting helicopter is equipped with the night-vision equipment necessary to make retardant drops at night. Incident commanders were anxious to keep a jump on any uptick in windy conditions and held their evening briefing one hour earlier than usual.
As of this writing, the fire is located about five miles up-slope from Calle Real. It’s not a straight shot down, however, and there are multiple ridges for the fire to traverse.