When Santa Barbara County Fire Battalion Chief Scot Alderete came over the top of the Glen Annie overpass at 3:30 a.m., he could tell the fire was a big one. “By the time I reached Whittier Drive, the flames were 75-80 feet in height, and the structure was fully involved,” he told me. With the aid of several engine crews and one hook-and-ladder engine, the fire was brought under control within an hour, but not before the structure, a huge plywood-covered building, sustained major damage.
Described as a multistory project designed to house UCSB faculty and their families, the building was engulfed quickly, and as nearby neighbors watched, the structure collapsed about 30 minutes after the first sirens were heard. A representative of the construction company in charge of the project, who was surveying the damage but did not want to be identified, told several neighbors who were gathered across the street from the project site that it was extremely likely the entire structure would have to be razed, the concrete removed, and the work started completely over again. Rough estimates from ranged from $2 million-$3 million and at least a year’s loss in time.
That may indeed have been the intent of whomever started the fire. The university’s efforts to expand housing for its faculty members in what it calls the North Campus area has been plagued by arson fires in the past. On January 29, 2012, another arson incident destroyed a camper-trailer, water tender, earthmover, and other heavy construction vehicles and equipment belonging to the project’s contractor. While no one was injured, an estimated $1 million in damage was caused by the fire.
Multiple incendiary devices were found by fire investigators after the 2012 fire, and though a $5,000 reward was offered, no one has been arrested in connection to it. The pattern in this morning’s fire is eerily similar. In addition to the main complex, several nearby semi-trailers were destroyed by the fire as well as a smaller building outside the UCSB site that was a part of the Ocean Meadows Golf Course. Several construction trailers several hundred yards away in an adjoining faculty housing construction site were also completely gutted, leading to the conclusion that multiple incendiary devices may have been used.
While Battalion Chief Alderete described the incident as highly suspicious, the locations of the various structures that were burned indicate that there were multiple starting points and that they were almost certainly set deliberately.
After the 2012 fire, according to several reports, witnesses described a male subject wearing dark clothing near the fire, and despite the UC Police Department making contact with multiple persons of interest, the leads apparently led nowhere. That may not be the case after this fire, as several surveillance cameras were pointed out to fire officials that may contain images of whoever started the fires.
Though representatives of from Santa Barbara County Fire and other local law enforcement agencies were present and beginning their investigation, Chief Alderete noted that the fire was set on state property and that the UCSB Police Department would be taking the lead in the investigation.