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Ray Ford

Saving the Riviera

Firefighters Make a Valiant Stand on Las Alturas Road


Thursday, November 20, 2008

At 5:45 p.m. last Thursday, homeowner Jerry Siegel spotted a fire burning above Westmont College from his house at 638 Las Alturas Road. “It seemed so small and far away that I didn’t think much about it,” he recalled. “My wife even wanted to take the dogs out for a walk, but instead we decided to stay home and keep track of the fire.”

Just above on Camino Verde, another homeowner named Dagmar looked out of her windows toward the mountains, watching the fire come closer and closer. Just that day, she had 12 pieces of antique furniture delivered to her house and she couldn’t believe her eyes. “I was in a complete state of denial,” she said. “I didn’t want to think it could reach my house.” A few minutes after 7 p.m., both homeowners realized they could stay no longer. “As I backed out of the driveway, I could see the eucalyptus tree at my neighbor’s house beginning to catch on fire,” Siegel explained.

Click to enlarge photo

Ray Ford

By the time I reached the intersection of Alameda Padre Serra and Las Alturas at 9:30 p.m., I could see a red glow on the horizon that told me the flames were not too far away. A third of a mile up the road I spotted the first brush on fire. Around another corner I saw a house on fire at the corner of Las Alturas and Alisal roads. I could see the house was a complete loss, and beyond it, the roof of another home was starting to catch fire.

As I made my way up the road on foot at 446 Las Alturas, flames had burned a hole through the living room wall of a large redwood home where the plastic window covers had also caught fire. Across the street, flames surrounded a two-story house and its deck was starting to smoke. Above it, a huge, multilevel house was engulfed completely in flames. Immediately in front of me, a 40-foot-tall conifer had caught fire and the smoke and flames completely covered the road, making it impossible to go farther. It looked like the Riviera was about to be consumed by fire.

Click to enlarge photo

Ray Ford

Then, not a moment too soon, a Santa Barbara City Fire engine burst through the smoke; then another and another and another. Within minutes, hoses were on the ground and water was flowing. While several firefighters took care of the roof fire, others headed up to the redwood home and down to the area where the deck had caught.

During the next several hours, I wound my way up Las Alturas to Rincon Vista Road, past 638 Las Alturas (where Siegel’s home had been reduced to ashes) and up to Camino Verde (where firefighters were making a valiant effort to save Dagmar’s home). The smoke and heat were so intense that it was almost impossible for me to get anywhere near the burning houses. But that did not stop the firefighters from taking a stand. At each home, while several of them attacked the house fires directly, others directed thick columns of water uphill, making every effort to keep the flames and red-hot coals from igniting the houses above.

Click to enlarge photo

Ray Ford

Dagmar’s home stood at the very end of Camino Verde, off on a small driveway that hid it from the main road. The heat was almost unbearable, but it didn’t stop two firefighters from dragging their hose a bit farther so it could reach her front door. “Give me power!” one of them shouted as the other relayed the message back to the engine crew. Suddenly the hose grew taut as it filled with water, and with the flick of a wrist the water began to flow. Though it was too late to save the home, the quick action may have kept the homes above it from burning.

A day later, I drove back up Las Alturas to view the damage. In the darkness of midnight, the sky had been filled with smoke, flames, and terror. In conditions that bordered on the chaotic, there was a sense that the Riviera could be lost. In the morning light, the homes that had been destroyed by the fire had a harsh, hurtful quality to them. But upon reflection, as I looked around, I could also see how many homes had been saved. This remains a testament to the skill and bravery of the firefighters who put their lives on the line Thursday night, and the community thanks you for a job well done.

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