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Major Santa Barbara County Fire Forces Some To Flee, Leaves Many Others On Edge

(Photo by Mike Eliason, Santa Barbara County Fire Department)
A helicopter prepares to make a water drop on Santa Barbara County's Whittier brush fire

It’s been a tough two days for Emma Bahsahbay.

The Winchester Canyon resident sums up her experience with the Whittier brush fire, which is burning in the mountains above her home, with an emotional two words: “I’m scared.”

Bahsahbay has lived in the rural canyon west of Goleta for three decades. On Saturday night, she looked out of the front yard of her home to see flames trying to work their way over the mountains from the blaze which started near Lake Cachuma.

With a small fleet of fire trucks patrolling Winchester Canyon, and the fire confined by firefighters to the mountains, she admits she feels better now.

Many people in the Winchester Canyon area are on edge though, camped out in their front yards watching air tankers and helicopters fighting the flames.

John Ginder and his wife haven’t gotten a lot of sleep since Saturday night. After seeing the flames pop over the top of the mountains,  the Winchester Canyon residents started packing up both of their cars with photos, and other items, just in case. In the end, they didn’t have to evacuate.

It was a long weekend for a lot of people. The Whittier fire forced about 3500 evacuations.

Red Cross shelters have been set up on both sides of the Santa Ynez Mountains, at Santa Ynez Elementary School, and at San Marcos High School in Goleta. The blaze started at around two p.m. Saturday just off of Highway 154 near Lake Cachuma, about 12 miles east of Solvang. The fire literally exploded out of control.

Firefighters and Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s deputies worked quickly to move hundreds of people from Lake Cachuma, and some summer camps in the area out of harm’s way. Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson says their efforts to protect 80 children, and staff members who were trapped by the flames at the Circle V ranch camp, just south of Highway 154 near Lake Cachuma amounted to a rescue. With flames on both sides of roads leading out of the camp, they sheltered the people at the camp in place, and rode out the fire until it was safe to leave.

Some of those who fled the Cachuma campground left so fast, their tents, and camping gear are still in place as if they never left. It could be days before it’s considered safe enough to allow people to retrieve the items. 20 structures in the Lake Cacuma area were destroyed, with many of them believed to be associated with camps or campgrounds.

Despite the flames, no one was hurt. Stopping the Whittier fire is another proposition, though. Mark Von Tillow, with the U.S. Forest Service, is commander of the efforts to put out the blaze. Like the 2016 Sherpa brush fire which was southwest of this new blaze, it’s burning in remote terrain, making it difficult to fight on the ground. He says air tankers and helicopters are critical to the effort.

One key to controlling the fire will be the weather. A cooling trend is in the forecast, along with an easing of the wind. But, a second key issue could be the availability of firefighting resources.

When the Whittier fire started on Saturday, air tankers and helicopters committed to the Alamo fire were diverted to the new blaze. Other new fires elsewhere in the state could mean that firefighters in Santa Barbara County will lose some of their airborne support, as well as ground crews who traveled here from around the state to help.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral. 
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