Over the past week, hundreds of Santa Barbara locals have returned to their neighborhoods to find only charred remnants.
The devastation caused by the Tea Fire, which broke out in the hills above Montecito less than two weeks ago, is at-times breathtaking. What started as a small bonfire for a few Santa Barbara City College students quickly grew into one of the worst disasters to strike Santa Barbara in decades and ultimately left 219 homes in ruins.
Setting the immediate gravitas aside, however, the Tea Fire is just the latest in a long list of devastating fires to affect Santa Barbara County.
“Naturally it’s a very fire prone area, due to the nature of the vegetation – chaparral is a fire dependent ecosystem – and we typically have very little rain in the summer time, and very dry brush,” Kathy Good, representative for the National Forest Service, said. “Under those conditions fires can start and grow very quickly.”
Santa Barbara County has played host not only to the second largest recorded wildfire in California history but also one of the most destructive. Just last summer, the Zaca Fire burned 240,207 acres in the Santa Ynez Valley, and this month’s Tea Fire is a grim reminder of the Painted Cave Fire, which, destroyed nearly 500 homes in the Santa Barbara area in 1990.
“We can’t prevent them, but we can prepare people to be ready more ready than they are,” Captain Eli Iskow, spokesman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept., said. “We certainly are as prepared as we can be.”
Yet, while having to cope with the occasional wildfire is a fact of life for anyone living in Southern California, many of Santa Barbara’s worst fires have been human caused.
“When you have a lot of human activity in heavily populated areas, and those areas also happen to be high fire hazard zones, [human-caused fires are] going to be the consequence,” Iskow said. “Some are definitely accidental, yet some are definitely intentional arson.”
The Gap Fire, which scorched nearly 10,000 acres in the hills above Goleta and forced thousands to flee this July, was a case of intentional arson. So too was the Painted Cave Fire, which in just four hours burned 5,000 acres, 440 homes, 28 apartment complexes and 30 other structures, equating to an estimated $250 million in damages.
And while not an intentional act, the 2,000-acre Tea Fire was also human caused. The dying embers of a late-night bonfire, coupled with hot, dry weather and powerful winds, were to blame for this most recent disaster. An assessment of the damages caused by the Tea Fire has not yet been completed.
The county’s district attorney’s office still has to decide whether to charge the 10 young adults whose bonfire started the Tea Fire, nine of whom are SBCC students, for negligence – something the county was unable to do after the catastrophic Painted Cave Fire.
In the wake of the Painted Cave Fire, authorities found evidence that it was started by an arsonist, although there were no suspects. Six years after the disaster, a woman named Peggy Lynn Finley informed investigators that her boyfriend Leonard Ross had confessed to the crime while having sex under the influence of ecstasy.
Although there was not enough evidence for the district attorney to prosecute Ross, Santa Barbara County sued for reparations in a civil case and won. Ross – who now sells solar-powered flapping butterflies at the Cabrillo Beach Arts and Crafts Show – denies the charges.
This summer’s Gap Fire, which cost the county approximately $20 million to contain and suppress, was reportedly started by a 16-year-old boy. The suspect is currently serving time on unrelated charges at a juvenile detention facility in Santa Maria.
With such a tumultuous history, Santa Barbara Fire officials are continuously taking precautions.
“We focus first within populated areas, lowering the fire hazard there,” Iskow said. “Then we go out, remove fuel. We’ve spent a lot of time [in the] Painted Cave area the last couple years, removing it by truck or burning it.”
Ultimately, however, fire protection is up to the homeowner, Iskow said. He said he encourages the public to protect their homes by complying with the state’s mandated defensible space requirements around the perimeter of their home.
Iskow added that extending the effort beyond the required area would ultimately benefit the community and minimize the chances the being a victim of the next big fire to devastate Santa Barbara.
“After people are finished complying with the state required defensible space, we ask them to go the extra mile in policing the area beyond,” he said. “It takes layers of effort.”