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Several Factors Fueled Fire in Santa Barbara

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Deadly but in some ways foreseeable circumstances conspired to feed the most destructive Southern California wildfire in 30 years on its erratic rampage over ridges and across rooftops from San Marcos Pass almost to the sea.

Unusual heat and very low humidity would have made any fire tough to control in the steep canyons, overgrown with dense chapparal baked dry by four virtually rain-free winters. But a hot wind, gusting at 60 m.p.h. and whirling in eddies, spun embers high in the sky and funneled the fire toward the homes below.

Human foible also played into the calculation, officials said. Many homeowners disregarded the law that requires that brush be cleared to establish a safety zone around homes. The style of construction popular when the homes were built--wood shingle roofs and open eaves that trapped heat and sparks--also mixed to fashion the disaster.

At least 519 homes were destroyed by the flames set loose Wednesday afternoon by an arsonist in rugged hills near the Trout Club area in rural Santa Barbara County. Most were overcome as the fire leaped and flared toward the sea in a furious four-hour storm that would have lasted longer and traveled farther if the wind had not died.

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One woman was killed trying to flee the advancing fire. On one street alone, Via Los Padres, 36 homes were wiped out. On Sherwood Drive 35 homes are gone, on Camino del Rio, 33.

Here and there on the suburban streets that finger into the hills, spared houses stand amid entire blocks of rubble. Officials said the survivors had luck on their side, given the conditions.

“There are lots of houses that did everything right and were burned to the ground,” said Tom Rogers, chairman of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. “But it’s only the houses that did everything right that had any chance of surviving.”

The fire was set about 6 p.m. on one of Santa Barbara’s hottest days ever. It quickly got the best of firefighters. Dry winds pushed by high pressure in the atmosphere over New Mexico tumbled over the peaks of the Santa Ynez Mountains and picked up the flames.

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As a horrified fire crew watched, wind gusts threw the flames down a slope into Maria Ygnacio Creek canyon, which funneled the blaze toward homes about a mile away.

The fire fed on dense brush and quickly jumped the dry creek bed, burned up the other side of the canyon and over a ridge into the upper end of Rancho San Antonio Estates, a hillside tract of $500,000 homes on half-acre lots.

“That’s where it began to take out bunches of houses,” Santa Barbara County Fire Marshal Michael T. Bennett said Friday.

Firefighters were quick to arrive and take up positions on Via Clarice and Via Maria as the flames appeared over the hill. But they left without ever spraying any water when calls came in reporting children trapped elsewhere in the area. Within minutes the neighborhood was engulfed.

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With the swirling winds flinging embers as far as half a mile, the fire did not so much advance as break out in new spots far from the main front, firefighters said. Scattering sparks kept the fire also moving down Maria Ygnacio Creek and San Jose Canyon toward homes in the area of Tuckers Grove county park.

Within the hour, whole blocks were on fire as flames jumped from roof to roof. Bennett said those with wood shingles went first. Most homes in the hills were built before wood shingles were banned on new roofs in the mid-1970s, he said. “The majority of houses in there do in fact have combustible roofing,” he said.

Exposed eaves trapped sparks and the super-heated air to create hot spots and ignite houses. Other homes caught fire via unscreened attic vents.

At some houses, brush-covered hillsides gave the fire a clear path right up to the buildings. By law brush must be cleared at least 30 feet from a house, but the law is not universally enforced.

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“We plead with people every year to do brush clearing,” Bennett said. “My expectation is that in the coming weeks we will see an increased willingness to clear brush.”

But Gerald Little, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman who lives in the burned area, said brush clearance was no insurance against this fire’s enormity.

“When you’ve got a fire that’s jumping freeways it’s going to (spread) whether the brush is cleared or not,” Little said. “When you’ve got these conditions there’s nothing you can do.”

Though firefighters rolled into the area from surrounding counties, the fire moved so fast that little could be done, Bennett said.

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When smoke began pouring into the command center set up in the basement of the Santa Barbara County jail, officials knew it was even more serious than they feared.

“By seven o’clock we realized this was not the place to be,” said Bruce Lee, director of the county Office of Emergency Management. Lee said he was listening to the fire radio “and I heard someone yell, ‘Control One is being evacuated. Click.’ And that was it.”

The state fire command center in Riverside also delivered the bad news that no aerial aid was immediately available--the planes were all in use at other Southern California fires.

The only real success fighting the main fire came on Via Regina, a street where a task force of firefighters with pumper trucks made a stand.

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They halted the stream of flames that was jumping along Maria Ygnacio Creek, a victory credited with saving an entire neighborhood of homes below Cathedral Oaks Road.

Three hours after breaking loose, the fire jumped the U.S. 101 freeway and threatened a 1,000-gallon chlorine tank. By pushing the fire away from the tank, firefighters managed to avoid what Bennett said could have been a catastrophe. An explosion would have loosed chlorine gas into the winds.

Only six homes burned in Hope Ranch, an area of expensive homes surrounded by brush-covered hills, and the fire’s southern limit, because the devilish winds died down. “They ended up lucking out,” Bennett said.

More than anything, the winds dictated the outcome, officials said. When the Santa Ana winds stopped gusting, the fire slowed from its frantic mile-an-hour pace and became bearable, if not controllable.

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Roderick reported from Los Angeles and Paddock from Santa Barbara. Also contributing to this story was Times staff writer Mack Reed in Santa Barbara.

PATH OF SANTA BARBARA FIRE 1--The firestorm that claimed more than 438 homes in Santa Barbara County Wednesday night was set near Trout Club, a cluster of about 40 homes in San Marcos Pass. 2--It raced down Old San Marcos Pass Road, claiming scattered homes. 3--The fire then took off down a ridge into the Maria Ignacia Creek canyon. Dense, dry brush here provided ideal fuel for the firestorm that followed. Hot, gusty winds whipped flames down the creek bed and also spread them southeast. 4--The flames traveled over a ridge into neighborhoods along upper San Antonio Creek Road. 5--The fire then jumped the San Antonio Creek bed. 6--It spread into a housing development above Cathedral Oaks Road. 7--The main front swept south, singeing the grounds of the Santa Barbara County jail and jumped the U.S. 101 freeway. 8--The fire leveled homes along Hollister Avenue and Modoc Road. 9--The fire advanced on Hope Ranch, an exclusive residential area, before circling back toward the mountains. 10--Meanwhile, firefighters on Via Regina fought back a flank of the main fire and saved a neighborhood from destruction.


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