With an unfavorable change in the weather expected by the weekend, firefighters deployed fleets of helicopters and bulldozers Wednesday in an attempt to gain the upper hand on the Whittier Fire.
No change was reported Wednesday night in the acreage or containment of the blaze, which has been burning since Saturday primarily between Lake Cachuma and Highway 154 on the north and the ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains on the south.
The area blackened remained at 11,920 acres, with containment still at 48 percent.
But by Thursday morning, the acreage figure had grown to 12,263, according to Beth Hudick, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman.
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Some 20 structures have been lost, and an estimated 3,500 people have been evacuated, mainly along the Highway 154 corridor, Paradise Road and in the West Camino Cielo area.
Like the day before, the most active part of the fire Wednesday was on the northeast flank, in the area of Bear Creek Canyon, where helicopters made run after run to Lake Cachuma to pick up loads of water to drop on the flames.
To the east of Bear Creek, bulldozers finished carving a containment line from the Winchester Canyon Gun Club near the ridge down to Highway 154, tying in at Paradise Road.
On the south flank of the fire, closer to populated areas of the South Coast, helicopters were used to reinforce contingency containment lines with drops of fire retardant. Increased drops be air tanker in that area were expected Thursday in advance of expected sundowner winds Friday evening.
Late Wednesday night, significant flames were visible on the south side of the ridge, below Broadcast Peak.
Hudick said a flare-up in that area burned 300 to 400 acres.
Forecasters were expecting Thursday’s weather to be a repeat of Wednesday, although slightly warmer.
By Friday, however, daytime highs in the fire area should hit 90, heating up a few more degrees on Saturday and Sunday, according to Robbie Munroe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
The warming trend is expected to be accompanied by falling humidity, with the possibility of weak down-slope, sundowner winds, Munroe said.
North to northwest winds of 10 to 20 mph are forecast for the evening hours, Munroe said, with higher gusts possible.
The change in winds also could mean warmer overnight lows — possibly dropping only into the 70s, Munroe said.
That combination could present a challenge for firefighters working to keep the flames away from neighborhoods in western Goleta.
Evacuation orders remained in effect for Highway 154 from Armour Ranch to Paradise Road, and West Camino Cielo from Highway 154 to the Winchester Gun Club.
An evacuation warning remained in place for the area from Las Varas Canyon east to Winchester Canyon, and from Highway 101 north to West Camino Cielo; and Paradise Road from Highway 154 to the first river crossing.
Highway 154 remained closed between Highway 246 and Foothill Road in Santa Barbara because of the fire, and many local roads within the evacuation areas are also closed, including West Camino Cielo at Highway 154, Kinevan Road at Highway 154, Farren Road at Vereda del Padre, and Old San Marcos Road at Via Parva.
West Camino Cielo remains closed from Refugio Road east to the fire, but officials have reported seeing private vehicles in the area, which they note is extremely unsafe for motorists, hikers, public safety officials and firefighting crews.
Nearly 1,096 firefighters have been assigned to the Whittier Fire, including personnel who had been released from the Alamo Fire east of Santa Maria.
Also assigned were 68 fire engines, 23 hand crews, 10 bulldozers, 10 helicopters, and 6 water tenders. Fixed-wing tankers are available from local air bases as needed.
Fire officials have given no estimation of when they expect to have the blaze fully contained.