WEATHER »

The Refugio Fire 1955

a coming of age


The longer an area remains unburned, the greater becomes its potentiality for fires of uncontrollable fury. The reason is simple. In our very dry climate, the accumulation of combustible debris becomes thicker with each passing year and as the fuel accumulates, the difficulty of quenching a fire also mounts. In other words, sooner or later, flames will spread uncontrollably through the chaparral, and worse yet, the longer between the burns the hotter the fire and the more difficult to control.

R. B. Cowles / Professor of Biological Science, UCSB

THE WEATHER during the previous week had been extreme. Temperatures as high as 110 degrees had been registered with humidity as low as 6 per cent. Moisture in the chaparral surrounding La Chirpa Ranch near Refugio Pass, critical to the ease with which the vegetation would ignite, had been driven to lows of less than 5 per cent.

Vegetation surrounding the ranch had been inspected by Forest Service personnel in June and it was noted that, other than the minor cleanup of scattered leaves, a good job had been done of preparing for the summer fire season. Unfortunately, not as much care had been taken with the buildings surrounding the ranch.

The small building in which the fire began was small, housing a generator which provided power for the ranch. Inside were other assorted supplies and an open-topped gasoline tank from which fumes were escaping. An improvised set of wires arced, this creating the spark that ignited the gas at 1 am, early in the morning on Tuesday, September 6, 1955.

At first the ranch caretaker attempts to put the fire out but in his excitement the efforts are ineffective. At 1:06 am, he runs to the main ranch and calls long distance to the phone operator who forwards his call to the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, which receives it at 1:14 am. Immediately units are dispatched from the Goleta and Jonata stations along with one of its commanders, Chief Wadleigh.

Driving rapidly down Highway 101 when Wadleigh first comes into view of the fire he realizes it is inside forest boundaries and radios the Cachuma fire station to get Forest Service personnel rolling. The Santa Ynez Lookout is notified by the station, which in turn notifies the Los Prietos Ranger Station that a major fire has broken out near the summit of Refugio Pass, but because of the delay in notification, valuable minutes are lost.

At 1:30 am, more than a half hour after the fire’s start Santa Barbara Ranger District resources are on the way from Los Prietos, including all available pumpers, crews and patrolmen, along with two dozers. The first of the Forest Service forces reach the ranch at 1:44 am, just 14 minutes later, but by then the blaze has already spread to approximately 20 acres in size and is being driven by a 15 mph wind.

Though no one yet realizes it, the Refugio Fire, as it will soon be called, will burn for 10 days, consume more than 77,000 acres of vegetation, scar the entire length of the Santa Ynez Mountains from Refugio to San Marcos Pass, and call for a drastic reorientation of fire policy.

During the past century. our relationship with fire has been both curious and ambivalent. Fire is among man’s oldest and best used friends; but as man has expanded the boundaries of his suburban homes and become more dependent on the backcountry for needed resources, in its most primitive and uncontrolled state - wildfire - it has also become terrifying and terribly destructive.

It seems a Catch-22 situation.

To protect vital resources the threat of wildfire must be eliminated; to do so in chaparral country almost seems to guarantee that they will occur. Given an appropriate mixture of fuel, heat, and wind - which occurs regularly in chaparral ecosystems - when wildfires do occur they become large, uncontrollable, and expensive.

But on the morning of the 6th fire fighters are not asking themselves philosophical questions; these will come later. The immediate efforts are to contain the fire to the east, or Santa Barbara, side of Refugio Road and the south, or ocean, side of Camino Cielo. By 8 am the fire has not only spread east but also rapidly down into Refugio Canyon, threatening guests at the Circle Bar B Guest Ranch and other nearby structures, having consumed more than 1200 acres of chaparral.

You can hear the roar of the fire distinctly,” reports Frank Clarvoe, News-Press associate editor, who is on the scene. “From the window of the Dal Pozzo home, I have a visual range of 180 degrees. All the way around this half circle, flames are moving up and down the slopes and through the dry grass, brush and scrub oak in an unbroken line.

There is a rain of ash. There are several layers of deep brown smoke, and the whole sky is cut off. The cloud of smoke driving out over the ocean makes the sea appear from here to be almost brown in color.

The Edison Co. has cut off its lines up the canyon.

The women around the ranch here are using hoses to dampen things down. The fire is on the ridge just above them….

The smoke is mushrooming up in varying colors, and the sunlight is reduced to an amber glow. The whole side of the mountains is an eerie kaleidoscope of colors.”

The fire continues inexorably down the mountain, at one point encircling the house in flame, but because the women have dampened the buildings and surrounding vegetation with water, the ranch is saved.

At 6 pm the fire leaps across Refugio Road and begins to eat up hillsides filled with grass and coastal sage on the west side of the road. The sage explodes into flame, crackling, the terpines in the aromatic leaves burning almost as explosively as gasoline. The front has split, now spreading outward both to the east and west, moving relentlessly across the foothills in either direction.

The sun, when one could see it was a hot, deep red disc,” Clarvoe continues as he describes the rapidly expanding pace of the fire.

The wind was hot, and seemed to blow from many directions at once, bringing with it the heat of the fire as if an oven had been opened. The wind was laden with ash, and sometimes it lifted embers from the front of the advancing flame line, hurled them thousands of feet to start new fires.

Along the ground the wind whipped up dirt and sand, and soon one was covered with sweat and ash and dirt.”

And the heat - always the heat, from the seared and searing patches of scrub oak and dried grass.

Such was the fire in all its sinister majesty, its terrible beauty.”

Thus far the fire has followed an extremely frustrating pattern for fire fighters. Racing eastward toward Santa Barbara it has stayed along the higher mountainsides and above the roads which serve ranches and farms along the coastal plain where it is extremely difficult to fight, and then, after having outraced the efforts of those fighting it, it has burned in multiple heads down into the canyons where these ranches and farms are situated, diverting precious fire personnel to the protection of these structures.

To combat the wall of flame that is burning across the upper slopes, on the afternoon of the 6th, backfires are set along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains from Refugio Pass to Santa Ynez Peak in a massive attempt to keep the fire on the south side of the mountains.

At the same time, in an attempt to outflank it on the east, dozer crews are quickly trucked from Highway 154 across West Camino Cielo to the head of Tecolote Canyon to open up a line from the top of the mountains down to Highway 101 from which a stand can be made. Additional cats work their way up the steep ridgeline toward Condor Point to join this line.

By 8 pm the evening of the 6th 22,000 acres have been scorched; 24 hours later that total has risen to 40,000 acres. In less than 30 hours the fire has blackened the entire coastal side of the Santa Ynez Mountains from Gaviota to Glen Annie Canyon, a distance of almost 25 miles.

It has been remarkably fortunate that few structures have been lost; this is due primarily to the fact that the fire has burned land that is remote and little inhabited. But dawn approaches on the 7th the Refugio Fire is now on the edge of civilization.

For the first time in what is normally a quiet tourist town for most Santa Barbarans, the raw power of the fire menaces them directly.

Early in the morning of the 7th a second dozer line is cut down a ridge line between San Pedro and San Jose Creeks and is completed by mid-morning. Thus far the fire has made less headway than yesterday or the previous night and has entered a period of lull.

Three hundred weary men hope the period is not temporary. They are joined by 400 fresh troops, raising hopes further, with 200 more on the way, including trained fire fighters from Colorado and New Mexico.

News that the fire has also surged up and over the mountain crest near Santa Ynez Peak worsens the situation. Thus far the fire has blackened the entire front side of the range west of Highway 154 and now the back side of the Santa Ynez Mountains is in danger of being lost.

Near Gaviota, also the morning of the 7th, the news is better. Dozer crews clear the crest from Refugio Pass to above Arroyo Hondo hoping to get a handle there before the lull ends. Frantically the ridge is backfired. The intentionally set fire moves slowly coastward to meet the advancing wildfire, and for the moment these crews are able to hold their ground, and keep the front from moving north over the Santa Ynez Mountains.

The wide expanse of San Jose Canyon is all that separates the fire from Old San Marcos Pass Road now.

Forces mass on Highway 154, the greatest concentration of manpower since the fire has begun. Fifteen pumpers arrive from Los Angeles and rush to the Pass where they form a line from the summit down to a point near the Trout Club.

There are 1,274 fire fighters involved in the action now, along with 500 Marines with full equipment enabling them to maintain themselves as a separate unit, more than 40 pumpers and 17 bull dozers, and 2 helicopters which are coordinating the operation from the air.

By this time the fire has burned more than 68,000 acres in just slightly under 2 1/2 days and covers a 65-mile perimeter.

Throughout the night the fate of the Trout Club residences hangs in the balance. The situation is tenuous. Erratic winds cause the fire to shift quickly and at several points men and equipment are evacuated for fear that they would be trapped.

On Old San Marcos Pass, just below the first switchback another crew of Forest Service men build a hand line down towards the Indians, hoping to isolate the Trout Club from the blaze, which is roaring in the canyon just below them.

I have often wondered what it would be like to be alone in the world,” Bill Hilton thought as he returned to his Trout Club residence. “Last night I discovered that being alone is something to be avoided. Last night I moved my family back into the San Marcos Trout Club and we spent the night there.

To be sure, we were not alone. But when we looked out our windows we could not see the usual lights from neighbors’ houses nor hear the usual chatter of children and barking of dogs.

From our window we could still see flames and embers on the hillsides across San Jose Creek from the Trout Club.

In the lulls between making up beds for the children and cleaning the ashes and dust from inside the house, we could hear rocks, loosened by the fire, rumble down the hillside across the canyon.

Then late in the evening, after all the lights had been turned out, the coyotes and foxes, evacuees themselves from the fire-blackened area, set up a howling symphony unlike anything heard in the Trout Club before.”

On the 15th, at 3 pm, ten days after it has begun, the Los Padres Forest Service announces that the Refugio Fire has been contained.

On the 19th, at the summit of San Marcos Pass, in the sliver of a new moon glimmering overhead, a celebration is held. Amidst the chants and drumbeats of dancing Indians and the happy smiles and shouts of nearby mountain residents, the eight tribes of Indians who have fought so bravely are staging their traditional “Rain Dance.” It is time to celebrate; this is the form of relaxation they display when a blaze they are fighting is brought under control.

The fire is over.

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Author’s note: This is an excerpt from my 1991 book Santa Barbara Wildfires published by McNally and Loftin. Download the entire chapter in PDF format.



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