Firefighters were already on the scene as residents of Sesame Tree Apartments poured out of their homes early Friday morning to watch a construction site across the street explode into flames that reached high above an unfinished UCSB housing project and destroyed three structures within 30 minutes. Combustion started at roughly two points about 100 yards apart. “It’s very frustrating and frightening,” said neighbor Benjamais Bemis, who has lived in her apartment for 18 years.
The incident that began around 3:30 a.m. on the Fourth of July was a painful reminder for residents of the numerous — and sporadic — dumpster fires that have recently flared up in the Goleta apartment complex at 6930 Whittier Drive off Storke Road. In the past year or so, there were three dumpster fires and one “unauthorized burning” at the location, according to county records. Neighbors have since told fire officials that a number of additional bin fires were not reported, said County Fire department spokesperson David Sadecki, though he was unsure how many more. A Sesame Tree employee, who did not want to be identified, claimed there have been nine total in the past year.
Multiple neighbors recalled the recent dumpster flare-ups with considerable fear, and none doubted the university housing destruction was committed by an arsonist. “Someone is getting more daring,” said the employee. All the dumpster fires started in the middle of the night, he added. Going door-to-door after one of the burnings, the employee found a witness who said that he saw two people throw something to ignite the dumpster fire and then run off, but an investigation was never launched. In fact, none of the bin fires were investigated by county officials. For that to happen, Sadecki said, the fires would have had to spread beyond the dumpsters, and authorities would need witness statements or suspect leads.
Officials have yet to declare Friday’s fire the work of an arsonist, but UCSB Police Sergeant Rob Romero said he was leaning toward that conclusion, though couldn’t officially declare it. “That would be insulting what the [fire] officials are doing,” he said. Several leads are coming in, Romero explained, but it would be “premature” to say a person of interest has been identified. Witnesses reported seeing a white male jumping the fence circling the site and fleeing toward the nearby slough.
“The development was not popular,” said neighbor Lynne Sehabert, calling the space before its development a “beautiful field.” Contempt for the building in progress, coupled with frustrations about loud construction noises, adds to the suspicion.
Initial media reports stated damages could cost the university as much as $12 million, but UCSB spokesperson George Foulsham said an estimate has not been finalized. In addition to the unfinished building, an old barn and a construction trailer were destroyed. It is likely that the project, which broke ground last year, will take up to a year to complete, Foulsham said in a statement. The UCSB Police Department, which is handling the investigation, is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the successful conviction of the offender or offenders.
Plans for the destroyed university housing — named Sierra Madre Apartments, formerly a golf course — had included rooms for more than 500 students, including 115 apartments of double-occupancy rooms and 36 units of single units for faculty and students. The complex was supposed to open by fall of next year.
Arson is not rare in the area. In Isla Vista, 24 arson-related events were reported from 2011-2013; 16 involved furniture and were likely part of a regular but illegal tradition carried out at the end of UCSB’s school year. Two incidents involved Molotov cocktails thrown at Foot Patrol deputies, according to sheriff’s spokesperson Kelly Hoover.
The mysterious blaze echoes a 20-acre fire that scorched the Coal Oil Point Reserve on June 26 around 9:45 p.m. It took firefighters much of the night to contain the wind-driven flames that consumed the vegetation from west to east. Plants were dry because of the drought, but officials had not issued a “red flag” warning that night or the night of the university housing fire.
Especially alarmed by the fire was reserve director Cristina Sandoval, who has witnessed floods and storms with some frequency but has only seen three fires in the past 10 years. On the night of the June 26 Tank Fire, Sandoval said her daughter saw two fireworks set off and saw smoke in the same spot a few minutes later. “It’s confusing at this point,” she said. Authorities contacted a subject who happened to be in the area at the time, but he was later let go. The cause is still unknown and under investigation, Sadecki said.
In an interesting side note, the Tank Fire uncovered a cluster of shells — a possible archeological find — as well as a copper plate from 1919, when Colin P. Campbell owned much of now-UCSB property. “Nobody knew where it was,” Sandoval said. “When it got burned, it just stood out, and you could see it.”