It’s 10 p.m. and I’m walking up Las Alturas Road on the Riviera passing fire engine after fire engine. They are pouring in from all over Southern California and heading up into the hills because it appears the Tea Fire has become the big one that everyone feared.
Just two hours ago I was watching flames pour through Westmont campus like water through a butterfly net; erratic winds and dry brush combined to push the fire faster than seemed possible. But as I headed back up to the fire zone for a second look at the damage I was shocked even more than I had been earlier. I could see huge flames cresting the top of the Riviera.
In the 120 minutes I’d taken to upload my Westmont pictures and post a story, the Tea Fire had done the unthinkable: It had burned through Westmont, cut diagonally down across Coyote Road, roared down Sycamore Canyon and then forced its way up the steep hillsides on the west side of the canyon and onto the Riviera.
As I drove up APS from the roundabout, I turned right onto Las Alturas, I was apprehensive at what I might find. Within a quarter mile I could see the smoke and the tell-tale red glow through the trees that told me the fire was near. Then perhaps a half mile up Las Alturas I spotted the first brush on fire, then more, and still more. Finally I spotted the first of what looked like a gutted house on fire, this a smaller structure, a modest home perhaps with what was becoming a familiar sight: the burned out hulk of an automobile with not much more than the upholstery left to burn.
From this point on it was on foot, past the fire engines, and around the first corner where a 40-foot tree of some sort was fully engulfed and completely blocking the road because of its massive flames. I stopped for a bit and walked up the driveways of a number of houses. One just around the corner from the first house I’d seen on fire was just about to go up in flames once the corner of the roof that was on fire took hold. Quickly I headed downhill and let one of the firefighters know they could save it if they got up their quickly.
On another driveway not too far away a reasonably good-sized house, all wooden, had burned enough that it was more-than-likely beyond saving. A bush near the house had caught on fire, burned a hole through the wood siding and caused the drapery inside to catch on fire. What looked like the living room was starting to go up in flames.
The pattern is becoming a familiar one. Las Alturas switches back and forth up the front face of the Riviera. At each of the elbows nearest Sycamore Canyon, the fire was burning the most intensely and as a result many of the homes overlooking the canyon were the first to go. As I wound my way up the switchbacks the damage became even greater, with huge homes fully engulfed in flames. I counted five then 10 then 20 homes with nothing left of them save fiery silhouettes and thousand-degree chunks of orange-red coals.
At this point I’ve only made it about halfway to the top of the Riviera and the damage is overwhelming. If there is a consolation, it’s watching the firemen (and women too) haul hose from house to house to protect those they can. Thankfully, as more of the engine crews arrive they begin to establish more control on the hill. While there are still homes they cannot keep from burning, increasingly, they have the resources needed to save more and more of them.
I reach a spot where there is a bit of a view across the canyon. I meet a firefighter there by the name of Tom. He’s from a Santa Barbara city crew that is scouting the next switchback above me to see which houses need immediate help. I ask him if he’s been further up the road and if he has what it’s like.
“Is it better up there than down here?” I ask hopefully. Tom shakes his head and I understand it’s not okay up there. “Sycamore Canyon has really been hit hard,” he tells me, with a fire-toughened look on his face. “The news is not good in the upper end of the canyon either.”
From our vantage point we can see a wall of flames on the east side of Sycamore Canyon that is tenaciously working its way down toward APS and Salinas. Above, on Eucalyptus Hill, constant on-and-off blinking emergency lights say that the firefighters are preparing to hold that area, but beneath in the darkness it is impossible to see if the homes in that area are safe or not.
North toward the mountains the hillsides are dotted with what look like large pockets of glowing coals. Tom tells me that those are houses that have burned completely to the ground. There are dozens of them. If he is right, then by now easily a hundred homes are gone and the number is much more likely to be a lot higher.
Tomorrow is going to be a very tough day for a lot of Santa Barbarans.