With all the fires burning in northern California right now and our fire season just around the corner, I thought a series of articles about the history of wildfires in Santa Barbara County would be of interest.
We have the perfect setting for fires: thousands of acres of wilderness with rugged terrain and few roads; rainy winter weather that allows grass and brush to grow, followed by months of hot, dry weather; prevailing winds as well as Sundowner winds; and people, who are the cause of most fires.
Below is a brief description of the major fires in our county from the 1950s through the '70s. In later articles I will cover fires from the 1985 Wheeler fire to the 2017 Thomas fire that led to the mudslides in Montecito.
Refugio, Sept. 1955: The Refugio fire started in a small building housing a generator and gasoline on the La Chirpa Ranch near Refugio Pass.
An electrical spark ignited the gasoline at 1 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6, 1955. At first, the ranch caretaker tried to put out the fire, but the wind was blowing and the grass around the building was dry, so the fire was soon out of control. The surrounding brush had not burned in over 50 years and was soon a raging inferno driven by 15- to 20 mph winds. Over the next few days, the fire burned along the south slope of the Santa Ynez Mountains to Gaviota Pass. It also started to spread east toward Goleta. The fire was finally contained on Sept. 15, having burned 79,428 acres and 20 buildings.
Coyote, Sept. 22 to Oct. 1, 1964: The fire started just before 2 p.m. on Mountain Drive, caused by a car’s faulty exhaust system.
Firefighters tried to contain the fire to the east side of Coyote Road, but high winds flung hot coals to the other side of the road and in all directions. The fire headed up the hills toward many houses. For the next few days, due to high winds and hot temperatures, the fire burned out of control – at some point, even threatening Santa Barbara, Montecito and Painted Cave areas. In the end, the fire burned 65,338 acres, 94 buildings (many of them homes) and killed one person.
Wellman, June 11 to 23, 1966: This fire was near the junction of the Sisquoc and Manzana rivers in northern Santa Barbara County.
At 7 p.m., a Cessna 180 carrying four airmen from Vandenberg Air Force Base misjudged a wilderness landing, crashed and started a fire. The two servicemen in the rear of the plane survived. Still conscious, both suffered broken legs but crawled away from the wreck before it burst into flames. The two airmen in the front of the plane were killed.
At dusk, the pilot of a commercial plane flying over reported the fire to Santa Barbara Fire officials, but the officials did not send help because they believed the pilot was referring to another fire near Los Prietos Boys Camp, which already had fire crews on scene. At 5:18 a.m. the next day, the La Cumbre Lookout Tower reported seeing a cloud of smoke rising from the backcountry. A helicopter went to investigate, spotted the crashed plane and the two surviving airmen. The airmen were rescued and help was called in. The terrain was rough, there were no roads, and the weather was hot and windy. The fire raged on for days, burning 93,000 acres of the forest’s prime undisturbed land.
NOTE: This fire opened the debate about the need to have roads cut in undeveloped land as well as controlled burns to prevent huge fires such as this one.
Romero, Oct. 6 to 16, 1971: On Oct. 6, an arsonist named Pat Russ turned off Highway 101 and began driving along Cathedral Oaks, Foothill and other back roads looking for the perfect spot to start a fire. He chose an area between Romero Canyon and Ladera Lane.
At 3:30 p.m. he lit the fuse on a homemade firebomb, tossed it out the window and drove off slowly so that he would not attract any attention. The fire was discovered and called in at 3:57 p.m., but due to wind and dry brush it had already burned 30 to 40 acres. By daylight, the next morning it had burned through all of Toto Canyon from its base at East Valley Road to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Bulldozer teams were called in and due to shifting winds, four bulldozer operators were trapped and died in the blaze. The southeast flank of the fire threatened Carpinteria. One week after the fire was started, more than 2,000 men were supported by what is described as “the heaviest air assault ever mounted against a fire in Santa Barbara County.” Once under control, the fire burned 14,538 acres and killed four people.
Meanwhile Pat Russ was convicted of setting fires in Orange County and sent to Atascadero State Hospital for the criminally insane. He confessed to setting the Romero fire and was indicted and convicted of murder of the four bulldozer operators.
Sycamore Canyon, July 26-27, 1977: The day the fire began, it was hot, dry and windy. That evening, a young couple decided to go fly a kite in the developing Sundowner winds.
Unfortunately, a gust of wind tore the string spool out the young man’s hands and caught in telephone and power lines. The 16,000-volt power line arced to an adjacent line and showers sparked on the dry brush below. At 7:27 p.m., the fire started, “becoming what will be known as seven terrifying hours of hell.”
The fire engulfed houses along Mountain Drive and within minutes it was spreading in three directions — up into the foothills, down into Sycamore Canyon and west into the Riviera community. In just seven hours, 234 homes were destroyed. The damage estimate was over $28 million (in 1977-dollar figures).
There were no human deaths, but many residents and firefighters had a narrow escape and suffered burns. The only thing that kept the fire from burning more than its 740 acres is that a cool marine layer began to blow in and by 2:40 a.m. a cool wind shifted the fire back on itself.
NOTE: One of the reasons the fire spread so quickly is the wind carried burning wood from roof shingles to new areas. That led to a change in building codes in Santa Barbara County that forbid roof shakes on new construction.
Eagle Canyon, Sept. 18-19, 1979: Eagle Canyon is located in the foothills above Goleta, west of Rancho Embarcadero, along Farren Road, east of Tecolote Canyon.
The fire was started by a motorcycle with a faulty muffler and quickly burned down canyon through the thick dry grass. It also caught a grove of eucalyptus trees on fire and spread into Tecolote Canyon. The wind forced the fire down canyon toward homes in the Winchester tract. The fire jumped Highway 101 and turned east toward the Ellwood Oil Fields and Sandpiper Golf Course, causing rows of eucalyptus trees along Southern Pacific railroad tracks to burn like 100-foot tall torches. Highway 101 was closed for 24 hours. Children were evacuated from Ellwood School to the Community Center in Goleta.
Fortunately, the cool marine air blew in and forced the fire back on itself, but not before 4,000 acres were burned, and five homes and numerous outbuildings were destroyed.
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