Near Bee Rock off Highway 154, a Forest Service Hot Shot crew gets ready to remove thick brush for a firebreak.
Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Dept.

The eight-day closure of Highway 154 due to the Whittier Fire was lifted Sunday evening. “The moment we felt comfortable [we opened it],” said Incident Commander Mark von Tillow. “People are still going to see smoke.” Evacuation orders were also reduced to warnings on Paradise Road from Highway 154 to the first river crossing and at Cachuma Village. All others remain in effect.

“Real successful day today,” a chief told the crew gearing up for the night shift at 6 p.m. Sunday at Dos Pueblos High School, the fire command’s base camp. Fears about a hot day and high sundowner winds had subsided. Temperatures surrounding Whittier’s perimeter were forecast to be 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Northern winds were expected to be as low as 3 to 7 miles per hour — “Not that much,” a weather official said. And unlike the last couple of nights, the skies were expected to be clear. “Who knows,” he said. “You might even see some stars.”

But the fire is inching downslope on the southern, eastern, and western perimeters. On Sunday, fire crews cut through brush — some as tall as 25 to 30 feet — and conducted “small tactical firing operations” to eliminate dry fuel near the containment lines. Some good news is that the fire is nearing the Sherpa fire burn spots and will have less fuel to consume.

On Sunday night, the blaze remained at 18,015 acres, and containment grew to 49 percent. On Friday night, containment had suddenly dropped to 38 percent from 52 percent after the fire grew by nearly 3,300 acres. Firefighters had not lost control of any portion; rather, the total perimeter expanded.

The head count is now 2,271, making up 53 crews. Many firefighters came down from working on the Alamo Fire — up near Twitchell Reservoir along Santa Maria’s State Route 166 — which was 95 percent contained on Sunday, when Cal Fire issued its final incident update. Some working the Whittier Fire have come from as far as Florida.

Of the more than 2,000 firefighters, six have suffered from dehydration. Some took the rest of the shift off to recover. They were all told to stay focused and be patient. “This is not a one-and-done fire,” the incident commander said.

Equipment for Whittier includes 144 fire engines, 16 helicopters, 35 water tenders, 18 bulldozers, and four masticators.

Incident commanders instructed the crews to stay hydrated with fluids containing electrolytes, and to take breaks if they were feeling dazed and confused. They also instructed everyone to clear out the freezer full of ice cream in honor of National Ice Cream Day.

A challenge was also announced: The fire division to “put the most black” on the map — meaning they controlled or contained portions of the fire’s edge — would get a night shift off during their next assignment.

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