Luck, readiness pay off in canyon


Everyone in Mission Canyon knew these days of flame and smoke would come. It was just a matter of when and how bad it would get.

They had staged evacuation drills, set up phone trees and put herds of brush-munching goats to work. They had cut down clusters of eucalyptus and bought metal shutters to protect against flying embers.

By Thursday, the Jesusita fire had scorched the canyon’s green umbrella and destroyed dozens of homes. But there were no deaths and most of the hundreds of houses in the rustic enclave were still standing.


Luck and readiness played their parts in averting a full-blown catastrophe. The blaze didn’t start burning homes until the second day, giving residents time to evacuate.

“It could have been considerably worse,” said Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Tom Franklin. “If there’s any community that is prepared, it’s Mission Canyon.”

Residents know they live in a firetrap and can never escape the potential for a fiery disaster. Hundreds of homes are set in a narrow canyon downwind from brush-covered wildlands. A winding web of side streets empties into the same few exits established in the 1920s, when the canyon’s population was a fraction of what it is today.

That is a recipe for another Oakland Hills calamity, the 1991 firestorm that destroyed nearly 3,000 structures and killed 25 people, many as they tried to flee in their cars down traffic-choked roads.

But when Ralph Daniel drove his SUV out of the canyon about 4 p.m. Tuesday, the drive “wasn’t bad at all.”

He had gone to his house after the president of the neighborhood association phoned him about flames. While he packed his car, he got a reverse 911 call advising evacuation.


“I’ve been mentally conditioning myself to not be so attached to my possessions,” Daniel said.

He was impressed with the reverse 911 calls, but “disappointed that there weren’t more airplanes sooner.”

Franklin shared that disappointment. The fire chief said the state’s big DC-10 supertanker “would be completely ineffective in this terrain.” But he said he would have liked to see federal air tankers joining the county helicopters and small planes dropping water and retardant Tuesday.

“We haven’t declared high fire season yet. We were just about to,” Franklin said. “So that means air resources from the federal and state are just gearing up.”

In an evacuation drill a few years ago, the county didn’t use enough phone lines to get the word out quickly. But Tuesday, “it went seamlessly,” said county Sheriff Bill Brown. Nearly 14,000 calls were made. About 6,000 people evacuated.

On Wednesday, another evacuation call went out. Law enforcement officers went door to door, telling people to leave. Another 6,000 did just that.

“Unfortunately we’re getting pretty good at this,” Brown said. The fire is the third in less than a year to prompt evacuations in the region.

Richard Axilrod is a neighbor of Daniel’s. He lives in a house he recently built to withstand fire. It’s concrete, has a tile roof and a 100-foot buffer free of flammable vegetation. “I was determined I was going to stay in the house,” he said. “I was much more prepared than in the past to deal with fire.”

But Wednesday afternoon the winds changed and ominous black and red clouds rolled toward his neighborhood. When a grove of avocado trees a quarter of a mile away turned into roaring torches, Axilrod and his wife packed up their Hondas and got out.

On Thursday afternoon, he was unsure of his house’s fate. But he was thrilled that the canyon’s losses appeared limited to a few dozen houses.

Since he moved to the canyon in 1968, it has grown, accentuating fire worries. “When I moved here, none of those houses were there,” he said. “They just overpopulated it.”

Ray Smith, a retired UC Santa Barbara geography professor, was prepared to defend his Tunnel Road home. But, he said, “when there are 70 mph winds, you go.”

He and his wife packed their Volkswagen van with possessions, their dog and two cockatiels and went to a friend’s house Tuesday. On Wednesday night, the spreading fire danger drove them to another friend’s. Smith said he heard Thursday his house was OK.

He said he thinks that recent brush-thinning work at the top of the canyon might have helped save homes.

“The goats just went through and cleared it,” followed by crews that burned piles of dead brush, he said.



Times staff writer Molly Hennessey-Fiske contributed to this report.