Despite initial reports from purported eyewitnesses and off-the-record statements from fire officials that the White Fire was started by a man disposing of BBQ coals on a dry patch of grass, Los Padres National Forest law enforcement officials and members of the District Attorney’s Arson Task Force issued this statement Friday: “It appears [the White Fire] began as a result of embers escaping an approved fire-use site at the White Rock Day Use Area within the Santa Barbara Ranger District’s Lower Santa Ynez Recreation Area.”
U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Andrew Madsen said a family group was cooking on one of the campground’s raised grills when small bits of embers blew into the grass behind it. Though the grass had recently been cut, Madsen explained, and some of the group members tried to douse the patch that caught fire, strong winds at the time caused the blaze to just “shoot off” into the vegetation.
Forest Service vehicles had been patrolling Paradise Road and monitoring camp sites all day, Madsen went on, and hadn’t seen any misuse of the fire rings or grills. While it’s legal to light cooking fires at approved areas, users should use caution and common sense when temperatures are warm and winds kick up, he said. “You might drive up there with the intention to cook, but depending on the weather, it might be smart to rethink your plans,” he said.
The White Fire — which began Monday afternoon and scorched 1,984 acres of steep, backcountry terrain before it was fully contained Thursday — drew around 900 firefighters from around the state who were supported by a small fleet of helicopters and planes. Preliminary estimates put the cost of fighting the wildfire at $3 million.
“The White Fire could have been avoided if this person or persons paid closer attention to their cooking fire,” said Santa Barbara District Ranger Pancho Smith in a prepared statement. “Cooking and enjoying campfires are time-honored traditions associated with enjoying our public lands, but we need to be vigilant when using fire during these extremely dry conditions.”