A discarded cigarette is the probable cause of a small fire on Stearns Wharf Wednesday afternoon. The fire was contained to about a 10-by-10-foot area and was doused before getting out of control. According to two valets working at the Harbor Restaurant, they spotted the smoke rising from the planks on the ocean side of the restaurant, and after throwing three or four cups of water on the area, called 9-1-1. The Santa Barbara Fire Department and waterfront department took it a step further, pulling up some of the wood pilings to ensure the embers were completely out.
The two valets speculated that a cigarette had gotten stuck between two wooden planks of the wharf, an idea verified by Santa Barbara Fire Department Battalion Chief Chris Blair. “It could’ve been potentially bad,” said valet Mike Dennis, who has worked on the wharf for 14 years, and said similar situations occur all the time, although he hadn’t seen a cigarette fire grow to be as large as this one. “This one was starting to get bad,” he said. The two said they often have to smolder smoke and flames caused by cigarettes discarded on the wharf.
While smoking is prohibited on most of the pier, there are designated smoking areas where the pilings are placed closer together to prevent cigarettes from finding their way between the boards. But, as this fire demonstrated, it still happens, Blair said, and as rubbish builds up in between them, there is more kindling for the flames when they ignite. He compared the four heated pilings to the firewood in a dying fire still extremely hot and glowing. “They burn like coal,” he said.
The wharf has a rough history with destructive fires. A 1998 fire devastated more than 150 feet of the wharf, when Moby Dick Restaurant caught on fire, causing about $12 million in damage. The rebuilding took more than two years. There was also a serious fire on the wharf in 2002.
In the dry summer months, especially on a wooden structure like the pier, Blair said, it is important to remember to make sure cigarettes are completely extinguished before discarding them.