Santa Barbara residents and tourists saw Stearns Wharf engulfed in smoke and flames Saturday afternoon for the fifth time since its construction.
The fire began at around 1:45 p.m. underneath the floor boards of The Nature Conservancy, Santa Barbara City Fire Dept. Sgt. Jim Pfleging said. The fire burned the inside of the building but left the structure and roof intact.
Pfleging said over 1,000 people evacuated the wharf when the blaze began. The wharf was closed until five, when it was reopened for the businesses not damaged by the fire. The cause of the blaze is still being investigated by the Santa Barbara City Fire Dept.
“There was no real fire danger. The wind was in our favor,” Pfleging said. “We just started at one end and told everyone to leave so we could do a check of the area.”
Before the Saturday afternoon blaze, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History – which also owns the Sea Center on the wharf – had plans to tear down The Nature Conservancy building to combine both businesses.
Stearns Wharf, which was constructed in 1872, has caught fire four times due to a variety of reasons, ranging from faulty water pumps to electrical problems. In 1986, The Nature Conservancy, the non-profit organization which manages 75 percent of the Santa Cruz Island Preserve, was nearly burnt when a faulty water pump caused the Sea Center exhibit hall, located next door to The Nature Conservancy, to ignite into flames.
The most serious fire occurred in1998, when a fire consumed Moby Dick Restaurant, Santa Barbara Shellfish Co., and Mike’s Bait and Tackle Shop, causing about $12 million in damage.
Pfleging said this blaze was less destructive in comparison to the 1998 fire, which the Santa Barbara City Fire Dept. blamed on faulty electrical wiring.
“This fire is significantly different than the fire of ’98. The building is not damaged,” Pfleging said. “The inside is burnt, but the structure and roof are still intact. The fire of ’98 was a catastrophe. Any fire on Stearns Wharf is a big fire. It’s all made of wood and a fire can spread very quickly.”