The story of the Whittier Fire this Saturday night is the story of the wind. Will it show or won’t it?
According to weather forecasts, sundowner winds are supposed to begin sprinting down the front country canyons toward the flatlands between 8 and 10 p.m., reaching maximum gusts of 40 miles an hour. But last night, the sundowner winds predicted proved far scarier than the ones that actually arrived. Firefighters are hoping they get lucky again. (Even with Friday night’s lighter-than-expected winds, the fire managed to balloon by 3,300 acres.) If not, there will be more firefighters on hand to do battle.
Saturday started with 1,612 firefighting personnel; as dusk darkened, there were 1,924. Not all of those are working lines. Not all are out in the field at the same time. But together, they make up 38 crews of 15 firefighters each. That’s 103 engines. That’s 18 bulldozers and four giant mechanical masticators that chomp brush. During daylight hours, that was also six fixed-wing aircraft and 14 helicopters. But those are down now. It’s unclear whether any helicopters equipped with night-vision technology will be available Saturday night.
Even though Saturday was 14 percent hotter than Friday and 23 percent dryer, the total acreage conceded to the Whittier Fire did not increase beyond 17,364 acres. The containment numbers held pretty steady, at 36 percent. When the day started, the fire was valued at $12 million. By 6 p.m., it had grown $4 million more expensive. Those numbers are so preliminary as to be almost meaningless. Five injuries were reported, but none were serious. All five were treated and returned to the field.
Throughout the day, firefighting crews established firebreaks, gouging wide swaths of vegetation-free lines in the soil to deny new fuel to the advancing fire. Down where the orchards meet the foothills on the eastern flank of the fire, engines and equipment are waiting should the fire make it that far south. Areas near the Winchester Gun Club, Camino Cielo, and Bear Canyon on the north side of the ridge are of special concern.
Although the fire is visible from Highway 101, it has to climb up and down several ridges before it gets a clean shot toward populated areas. Given how steep the terrain is, firefighters are ready to fight fire with fire. Should the Whittier get sufficiently close — particularly in places like Gato Canyon — fire crews are prepared to light fires of their own that presumably will gobble up fuel that would otherwise be available to the Whittier. That approach has not proven necessary yet.
For anyone seeking more information, the Incident Command is asking residents to avoid calling 9-1-1. They don’t want limited bandwidth pre-empted by the curious or the anxious. Instead, those seeking information on the fire are asked to call (805) 699-6451 or email LPFWhittierFire2017@gmail.com.
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