The Whittier, Calif., fire burning in Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County grew by about 4,000 acres overnight to more than 17,000 acres, which officials attributed Saturday in part to a combination of low humidity, high temperatures, steep terrain and brush fueling the fire on its southern flank.
After reporting Friday that the fire was more than 50 percent contained, officials said Saturday morning it was only 34 percent contained. But they said they expected fire crews to regain the upper hand on Saturday.
The increase in the amount of acreage burned was partly because of controlled burns that were set to reduce the amount of fuel available in the fire's path, said Mike McMillan, a Whittier fire information officer. Fire officials had prepared for severe "sundowner winds" Friday night but they turned out to be mostly mild, McMillan said.
"We had a very calm night as far as the fire behavior goes and that's because the wind never really picked up," he said.
The fire burned mainly in areas above the marine layer, McMillan said.
Similar weather patterns expected for Saturday and Sunday -- warm temperatures and low humidity -- could prove problematic if winds become erratic, according to the National Weather Service.
Friday evening, fire and sheriff's officials concerned about the weather's effect on the blaze issued evacuation orders for additional areas near Paradise Canyon Road from Highway 154.
A massive high-pressure system over the U.S. Southwest has caused temperatures to rise throughout California, including burn areas, officials said. The system also generated breezy conditions that fanned wildfire flames, which were mostly fueled by thick brush.
The sundowner winds expected again Saturday night could further hamper firefighting efforts, particularly in the steep terrain of the national forest, officials said. Strong offshore winds could push the fire toward populated areas.
But fire crews are prepared if that should happen, officials said.
A cool-down isn't expected until Monday.
The cause of the Whittier fire remains under investigation. Since it erupted on July 8 along Highway 154, the fire has destroyed eight homes and 12 outbuildings and prompted officials to issue a mandatory evacuation for 2,600 people. Currently, 1,615 fire personnel are battling the blaze.
Meanwhile, the 28,687-acre Alamo fire near Santa Maria was 93 percent contained as of Saturday morning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The blaze has destroyed one home and damaged one structure.
Hundreds of people fled the area when the fire broke out July 6 off Highway 166 near Twitchell Reservoir in San Luis Obispo County. Evacuation warnings remain for Tepesquet Canyon residents only.
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