This is the second in a series of articles looking at major fires in Santa Barbara County. Of the six fires covered below, only one was started by natural causes — the Gaviota fire. Due to arson or carelessness, 430,088 acres and 701 structures burned in these fires. As our fire season is upon us, we all must be careful not to start a fire and be prepared to act if one threatens our homes or families.

Wheeler fire, July 1-15, 1985: The Wheeler fire was caused by arson in Wheeler Gorge, 15 miles northwest of Ojai.

The weather was hot and windy, and the terrain was steep and rugged. The area had not burned in over 40 years and was full of dense, dry brush. Within two days, the fire had burned 26,300 acres and threatened the town of Ojai and Thatcher School. A change in the wind caused the fire to move from Ventura County into Santa Barbara County and threaten Carpinteria. In one six-hour period, on Wednesday, July 3, the fire burned an additional 20,000 acres. It moved into Matilija Canyon, causing the fire to slop over into the Santa Ynez watershed above Jameson Reservoir. The fire had been burning only two days but expanded to 45,000 acres.

Carpinteria High School became the new staging area. At dawn, firefighters worked frantically in the Santa Ynez Mountains with hand tools, while bulldozers cleared a break near the crest of 5,000-foot Noon Peak to keep the fire from cresting over the coast side of the mountains. There were 2,700 firefighters on the scene, some from as far away as Michigan and Arkansas. Four days later, 81,000 acres had burned, and critical watershed areas and sensitive California condor habitats were threatened.

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.

It was decided that the only way stop the fire was to start backfires to burn off 30,000 acres of dense brush. Throughout the rest of the week, the fire continued to burn in several major canyons feeding into the Santa Ynez River. Finally, the fire began to wane when a tropical storm off Baja California helped lower the temperature into the 70s. The fire was controlled on July 15. It burned 119,361 acres, 19 homes, 37 buildings, 32 vehicles and $3 million worth of orchards.

Paint fire (Painted Cave fire), June 27–July 2, 1990: The Paint fire — more commonly referred to as the Painted Cave fire — began on June 27, 1990.

June had been unusually hot and dry — the temperature was 109 degrees on the day of the fire. The winds were gusting at 75 mph. Due to a property dispute between neighbors, the fire was intentionally set around 6 p.m., near Highway 154 and Painted Cave Road. Pushed by Sundowner winds, within two hours the fire burned 5,000 acres, destroyed 440 houses, 28 apartment complexes, and numerous businesses along Hollister Avenue and Modoc Road.

People barely had time to flee and one person was killed as she tried to escape the flames on foot. That night, the wind changed direction, coming off the ocean to push the fire back onto itself, saving the homes in Hope Ranch. The Paint fire was the most intense and destructive fire to burn the Santa Barbara area in decades and continues to be one of the worst fire disasters in the history of Santa Barbara County.

Marre fire, Sept. 25–Oct. 8, 1993: The Marre fire was started by a hunter smoking a cigarette on the Marre Ranch, located east of Los Olivos on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest.

Dry brush and trees along with high winds and low humidity generated a highly erratic fire. In just two days, the fire burned over 10,000 acres of private and National Forest land. In just five days, 32,500 acres had burned, part of it in the San Rafael Wilderness. At one point it was feared it would threaten Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.

Early on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 2, the fire jumped containment lines on the west flank, trapping several pieces of firefighting equipment and personnel in the process. From that point on, the northwest side of the fire, including Birabent Canyon and the Zaca drainage, became the area of greatest concern.

When the fire was finally contained, it had burned 42,700 acres. Although no structures were burned and no one died, a group of firefighters were trapped, and the fire burnt over them. Due to their survival equipment and training, they all lived through the incident. Many policies and procedures were changed and refined due to that entrapment.

Gaviota fire, June 5–11, 2004: Lightning started the Gaviota fire in dense brush and undergrowth along the Santa Ynez Mountain Range that had not burned since the Refugio fire 50 years ago.

Hundreds of people from the Hollister Ranch and homes along the west side of the mountains had to be evacuated. The fire came within 4 miles of the Reagan Ranch and threatened the Arguello Inc. oil refinery. Highway 101 was closed for two days, putting pressure on Highway 154. When Highway 101 did open, only one lane each way was open to the public as the other lanes were used for fire equipment. A Southern Pacific Railroad bridge was damaged, so passengers were bused between Santa Barbara and the Surf Beach station near Lompoc.

The fire burned 7,500 acres and had more than 1,000 firefighters trying to contain it. Over 16 miles of fire breaks were bulldozed along the ridge of the mountains. It burned up to Camino Cielo and Gaviota Peak but, due to heroic effort of the firefighters, did not crest and start down the east side of the mountains. By the time it was contained, the fire had burned 7,440 acres and four structures, two of which were at the abandoned Vista Del Mar school.

Perkins fire, June 19–26, 2006: The Perkins fire was located 45 miles east of Santa Maria near Highway 166 in New Cuyama.

The fire started when a sheet of metal siding flew off a building and struck power lines, causing sparks to ignite the dry brush below. Temperatures were in the high 90s, humidity was low and the wind howling. Suppression efforts included 1,062 firefighters, 40 hand crews, 35 engines, eight helicopters, five air tankers, 15 bulldozers and eight water tankers. Much of the containment effort was focused on preventing the fire from crossing the ridge of the Sierra Madre range and spreading into the San Rafael Wilderness, a remote roadless area where the use of mechanized firefighting equipment such as bulldozers was not allowed due to the condor sanctuary and ancient Chumash archeological sites.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of the firefighters, the fire did not spread into the wilderness area, however, it charred campgrounds in the Los Padres National Forest, destroyed three house trailers and four storage sheds. A total of 14,988 acres burned before the fire was finally contained.

Zaca fire, July 4–Aug. 31, 2007: The Zaca fire was started by sparks from a grinding machine used to repair water pipes to a cattle trough on the La Laguna Ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Fortunately, the fire burned away from populated areas but in extremely steep and rugged areas of the San Rafael Mountains, the Los Padres National Forest and the Santa Ynez River Recreation Area. By the time the fire was contained, it had burned a total of 240,207 acres. Hot spots continued to burn into late October.

The fire cost $117 million to fight and caused 43 nonfatal injuries to firefighters. Two injuries occurred when a helicopter fighting the fire crashed. One outbuilding was the only structure burned. Four corporations connected to the La Laguna Ranch paid a $17 million settlement to compensate the state and federal governments for the cost of fighting the fire. At the time, the Zaca fire was the second-largest fire in California history.

Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at