Whittier fire evacuates 3,500 people due to brush fire

By Raiza Giorgi

The Whittier Fire evacuated 3,500 people when flames broke out Saturday afternoon according to fire officials at a press briefing Sunday afternoon.

Officials from multiple agencies including Santa Barbara County Fire, Los Padres National Forest Service and Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department discussed how their operation to evacuate everyone at Cachuma Lake turned quickly into rescue mission as 80 children and staff at Circle V Ranch Camp almost became victims of the rapidly growing fire.

“We had fire personnel, we had Sheriff’s personnel, and Los Padres National Forest personnel all back there keeping those kids safe. And they rode it out with them for hours. Literally hours until it was safe to get them out of there,” said Eric Peterson, chief of SBC Fire.

The road on both sides of Highway 154 were impassable due to high flames, and the children were held in a bunker before a bus from the Chumash Casino came and safely evacuated them to Old Mission Santa Ines to be shuttled or picked up by parents.

“On behalf of Circle V Ranch Camp Director Ray Lopez, we are so very grateful to first responders, staff and volunteers who helped safely evacuated ALL our Session 2 campers and staff yesterday,” said Laura Kath, spokesperson for Circle V.

Evacuations centers have been established at San Marcos High School near Goleta and at Santa Ynez School. Highway 154 will most likely remain closed for several days from Paradise Road to Highway 246.

SBC Fire Cpt. Dave Zaniboni updated Sunday evening that crews were unable to map the fire accurately and little change to the 7,800 average estimate with five percent containment. The fire did grow west on Camino Cielo going towards Refugio, he noted.

“It made a good run that way then came back easterly. The eastern edge is unchecked due to steep terrain,” Zaniboni said.

There were many air tankers and helicopters working the ridge and south side of the Santa Ynez Mountain range and they will be back in the morning to keep going, Zaniboni added.

Another briefing will happen at 7 a.m. Monday where fire officials will hopefully get it mapped and a new acreage estimate.

No additional structures have been lost, he concluded.

The Santa Ynez Valley Star was granted access to Highway 154 and the fire area Sunday morning where  Cpt. Nick Kostechko of the Forest Service spoke about their efforts as they filled their water tanks at Lake Cachuma.

“We are are doing spot checks and making sure that places that already burned don’t reignite. It takes about five minutes to refill the tanks and another ten minutes or so to get back to the line but we are continuing to support the other crews,” Kostechko said.

At the Santa Ynez Airport Forest Service crews were arriving to set up their operations to help with the air effort. Resources for the ground crews were also being flown in by helicopter to the back country. Cases of water and food were being flown in from what was visible.