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A Siege of Fire : A Night of Terror for Those in Fire’s Path : What Started as a Puff of Smoke Soon Was a Wall of Flame That Periled Thousands

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It was unnervingly hot for early evening on the Santa Barbara coast--still over 100 degrees--when a fire crew driving south on San Marcos Pass Road saw the smoke.

They wheeled off the highway at Painted Cave Road for a look. A patch of grass was on fire in the clump of homes known as the San Marcos Trout Club, the crew reported. No more than half an acre was involved.

Five minutes later, their call was more frantic. Desert-like winds whipping over the ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains had blown the flames into a canyon. The canyon pointed almost due south, toward several neighborhoods and finally the ocean.

Five miles down the canyon at the Santa Barbara County fire headquarters, Michael Bennett stepped outside. He and a co-worker began driving toward the smoke, but didn’t get far.

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“As we looked, and we’re talking about three to five minutes from the first report, it was apparent to us that we had a major fire . . . that could be almost impossible to control,” Bennett said.

By sunrise Thursday, the fire had burned down hundreds of homes. Dozens more were overrun by the wall of flames but spared. For thousands of people who found themselves in the fire’s path, Wednesday will be remembered as a night of terror.

6:20 p.m.: In the Trout Club area, a thick canopy of trees gave the fire all the fuel it needed. More than a dozen homes, a mix of old and new but all high-end, were consumed. But the most fearsome activity was in the San Antonio Creek gorge, a steep overgrown canyon. Fire Capt. Charlie Johnson said the brush there hadn’t burned since 1955 so it was dense, and four years of no rain and the hot winds made stopping the advance impossible. The flames were sweeping down the canyon faster than the lone fire crew could drive.

6:30 : The wall of intense heat hit the Park Highlands neighborhood. The first houses to go were on Via Clarice and Via Maria, but the fire quickly jumped to other tree-lined streets as the houses with shingle-shake roofs just erupted. Smoke alarms could be heard going off inside one house, but moments later it was swallowed by flames. People ran screaming from their houses as young men scampered to grab shovels, but there was nothing to be done.

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Cars sped down the hilly streets, but Sally Kinney tried to stay calm. She drove out with her two dogs and a haphazard pile of possessions on the seat beside her. When asked what she had taken, she said, “I don’t know, I just grabbed things.”

Nearby, two women and four children laden down with bags walked out of the neighborhood, a stuffed doll under one woman’s arm.

6:41 : Fire units report the neighborhood fully involved. Marian Burdick stood at the bottom of Via Los Santos Road, watching the homes burn. “Have you heard whether they got my husband and son out?” she asked. “They were up there fighting the fire. Our house was on fire.”

7:00: Gusts up to 60 miles an hour propelled the wall of fire downhill into Oakcrest, Rancho San Antonio and other tracts north of Goleta. A Ventura County fire strike team pulled into the Tuckers Grove area with five pumper trucks to make a stand. By chance, they found a hydrant that still had water pressure. With water cannons blowing ahead of them, trying to cool anything not already ablaze, the firefighters managed to save about a dozen homes on Via Regina. But houses, trees and cars were bursting into flame all around and they had to pull back.

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“It was really like a firestorm coming through here,” said Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Bement. “We had very strong down-canyon winds and it was shoving the fire right up our backs. There were firebrands all over the place, the shake-shingle roofs and brush and grass close to the streets gave the fire a leg up before we even got started.”

7:30: Lorne Nelson evacuated his Rancho San Antonio neighborhood when the dog passed out. “We couldn’t see the end of the car when we drove out,” he said. But he could see the fire trucks turning tail and fleeing the flames.

His wife, Vivian, returned home to find him gone. She and a brother decided to stay, and lugged buckets of water from a neighbor’s pool to douse flames on the lawn most of the night.

The house next door and many others on the street burned to the ground, but the Nelson home survived.

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“I was going to stay there until there was absolutely no hope. Escape was the last thing I was thinking about,” said Vivian Nelson.

No fire engines arrived until 3 a.m., she said. “We were on our own totally,” Nelson said. “We had no aid. No phones. And no water when the pipes melted.”

Nearby, retired truck driver Gerry Hon, 60, was watching a TV news report on the fires in Glendale when his mother smelled smoke. He went outside to find his street, Camino del Retiro, under a thick layer of smoke.

Hon sent his mother to safety and armed himself with a hose. His garage burned--taking with it a 1957 Ford pickup he had hoped to restore--and the skipping flames came right up to the house.

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“The flames moved really fast--like a wall of fire down the hill,” Hon said. The shingles kept lighting afire and I kept trying to put them out. Finally, I was having so much trouble I just started ripping off the shingles that were on fire and throwing them down off the roof.

7:45 : Residents along Modoc Road in Goleta saw the leaping flames jump U.S. 101, the busy freeway up the coast, and race toward their homes. The fire skipped across Hollister Road and quickly engulfed the Philadelphia House restaurant, according to resident Kathy Guerin.

She was watching the advancing fire from her back yard when two neighbor boys came to borrow her hose. “Just then, you could see a wall of fire come up over the railroad,” she said. “They yelled some unmentionable things and we all headed for (safety).” Guerin said she drove the boys and her daughter out of the area at high speed.

Flames had also surrounded the county’s main jail on Calle Real. Inmates in the adjacent wooden building honor farm were marched down a road to San Marcos High School, where they spent several hours before returning to jail. The jail itself did not burn, but the lawn in front and about 20 new patrol cars did.

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Five emergency Red Cross relocation centers were opened and churches also opened shelters. A local radio station broadcast the locations of all-night restaurants as possible havens for those stranded.

A fire dispatcher was overheard saying over the radio “homes are going up all over this town.”

9:30 : James Anderson, 40, was trying to return to his family in Goleta. He got only as far as Goleta State Beach, where the city had set up sleeping bags, food and blankets. He spent the night on the beach.

Meanwhile, utility poles were burning just outside the new command post at the county fire headquarters. At least 300 firefighters were on the scene, and the “sundowner” winds had blown the fire into the exclusive Hope Ranch area, barely a mile from the Pacific. But the fire was slowing, taking no more than an acre a minute now.

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At the First United Methodist Church in downtown Santa Barbara, seven boys--ages 10 and 11--checked in. They had been hitting baseballs at a Ventura batting cage and couldn’t get home. “I’m just kind of confused. I’m really worried about my parents,” said Nicholas Purheiser, 10, of Santa Barbara.

Along Modoc Street in the Hope Ranch Annex area, Paul Craig was manning a hose, trying to douse flames licking at a Victorian-style home. Suddenly the water pressure died. Craig threw up his hands and walked away.

11:00: The fire’s run nearly to the sea was complete, but hot spots still swirled in the wind.

Capt. Robt Vatter of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department returned to the command post to get more air tanks. “It’s a very hot fire,” said Vatter, blackened with soot and dirt. “There were firestorms out there, flames jumping in tornado-type currents a half mile into the air.”

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Caltrans had closed 44 miles of U.S. 101 north of Santa Barbara, and power lines were down on the road.

11:45: Authorities finally get a grasp on the damage toll: at least 280 houses destroyed, including 39 in the Trout Club area where the fire began. Until then, they could only say “lots.”

“One of the biggest problems we had out there was that the smoke was so bad you couldn’t see. The winds made the fire jump so that they still don’t know the fire boundaries,” said fire captain Johnson.

First, occasional reports of random looting were broadcast on police radios.

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12:00: Relief came for Will Hayes, a retired dean at UC Santa Barbara, when 24 fire engines from Los Angeles rolled into Hope Ranch.

Hayes had returned home from a dinner at 7:30 p.m. to find the exclusive subdivision ablaze. He evacuated with his wife and grown son, at the urging of officials, but returned about 10 p.m. with his son. They grabbed a 3-inch professional firefighter’s hose they had stored in their home for four years. The two sprayed the brush around the base of Hayes’ home and kept the fire at bay.

3:00 a.m .: Winds finally calmed down, giving firefighters a rest.

Hon, the retired truck driver who had been wetting down his roof since 7:30, declared victory. The wall of flame had moved on. Most of his neighborhood was gone, but his house stood. “I felt I was out of danger,” Hon said.

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6:00: Victims began driving back into the neighborhoods beneath San Antonio Creek canyon, hoping it wouldn’t be as bad as they feared. But most found it was worse. Entire streets of homes were wiped out, only chimneys, the charred skeletons of cars and piles of rubble.

Two hot spots remained of concern to firefighters--the original Trout Club fire site, and some hills along San Jose Creek. But at least the long night was over.

On Via Maria, Bonnie Dickinson sat quietly on a rock, surveying what used to be her home. She feared for her husband of 28 years. “My husband stayed really long,” she said. “He was wetting down the roof. He wanted me to get out and meet up with him later.”

Margaret and Lawrence Lovig recalled they had been fixing supper when their back yard went up in flames.

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“Somebody called and said, ‘You’d better get your things out,’ ” Margaret Loving said. “We turned around and in five minutes it was right up on us.”

They stood in front of the remains on San Antonio Creek Road on Thursday morning. Only the chimney, the brick patio and melted steel home appliances poked through the ashes.

“I guess we have to be tough. I told Larry, ‘I don’t believe in capital punishment, but I guess this morning I do,’ ” for the suspected arsonist who set the fire, Margaret Lovig said.

Also on San Antonio Creek Road, Jack Novak and a friend combed through the embers of his parents’ bedroom, fishing out melted jewelry. “Her diamond rings are going to be around there somewhere,” Novak said, pointing out the remains of the dresser to friend Russell Woodward.

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Novak held up a nugget of ash, saying, “The pearls exploded. Jesus . . . there was a whole sting of pearls in here.”

He looked over the back yard fence to the charred canyon below. “This place is going to be a disaster area for a long time. It’s never going to be the same, man, it’s never going to be the same. . . .”

Roderick reported from Los Angeles and Miller from Santa Barbara.


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