A Santa Barbara homeless man has been arrested for accidentally starting the Thursday-afternoon structure fire at 530 Chapala Street, police said.
A witness told authorities that at 8:20 a.m. they saw Andrew Easton, 41, putting out what appeared to be a small warming fire right outside the building’s metal roll-down door. Fire investigators would later determine that “the wood trim surrounding the door ignited, causing a fire that spread up the trim and developed into a major fire to the structure,” police said. Another witness told officials they smelled smoke at approximately 9:00 a.m. but assumed it was coming from the chimney of a nearby home.
Officers familiar with Santa Barbara’s homeless community said Easton would often camp in the street-side alcove. On the day of the fire, he was located two blocks away on the corner of State and Ortega streets and taken into custody. Easton declined to give investigators a statement and was booked into Santa Barbara County Jail for unlawfully causing a structure fire without malice, a felony. His bail is $20,000.
The blaze was contained to the single building, a property owned by the Dal Pozzo family since the 1940s. Steve Dal Pozzo was on-scene as crews worked to douse the fire, putting it out within 30 minutes of receiving the call. There were no injuries, and the extent of the damage is unclear.
Easton had not taken advantage of the homeless emergency shelters set up throughout the county in recent weeks — an annual offering when the weather turns cold and wet. The warming centers, open 6 p.m.-6 a.m. on designated days and at specific locations, had been open December 31, 2012-January 2, 2013, and then temporarily ceased operations when the sun came out.
Since November 15, 2012, there have been more than 1,900 visits to the warming centers throughout the county, said director Maria Long. A third of the attendees used the shelters for the first time. Throughout the entire season last year, there were 2,858 visits — from November 15, 2011, to April 15, 2012 — a 65-percent increase from the year prior. This year’s season ends March 31.
Long called the fire and Easton’s arrest “disheartening. … It’s tragic for everyone, for the building owners and the homeless community.” She said there’s clearly a need for some kind of day center for people on the street to seek services beyond our “overburdened shelter systems.”
For updates on when and where emergency shelters will open, call (805) 324-2372.