Tea Fire Takes Conejo Road Residents by Surprise

UPDATED: Sycamore Canyon Gate Closure Forces Evacuation Detours

The gate on Sycamore Canyon Road opens during the fire emergency.
Paul Wellman

UPDATE: ON Monday morning, November 17, Montecito Fire Department Chief Kevin Wallace clarified the situation regarding the Sycamore Canyon Road gate. The fire was first reported at 5:45 p.m. Fire Marshall Jim Langhorn arrived at and opened the bottom gate at Sycamore Canyon Road at 6:03 p.m., according to Wallace, and Curtis Vincent was at the top gate “shortly thereafter.” Some people were trying to get up into the canyon from the bottom gate, which was supposed to be used exclusively for evacuation; so at 6:06 p.m., the Montecito Fire Department asked the Santa Barbara Police Department to help direct traffic. (This story was originally published Friday, November 14, at 10:03 p.m.)

Outside San Marcos High School’s Red Cross shelter Friday, sitting with homeowners’ insurance agents under makeshift tents, people whose homes burned to the ground Thursday night were grappling with reality. A handful of those who live on Conejo Road, at the intersection of Sycamore Canyon Road and Stanwood Drive, recalled hair-raising exits from their neighborhood that they said could have been easy if a controversial gate blocking Sycamore Canyon Road had been immediately opened as promised. The gate was installed in 2004 because the hillside along Sycamore Canyon Road repeatedly, and dangerously, slid down over the pavement. Residents complained at the time that the gate was a fire hazard, yet were assured it would be opened by Caltrans, who has authority over the Santa Barbara end of Sycamore Canyon Road, including the gate, in the event a fire erupted. That was not borne out Thursday.

Katie Ingersoll was one such resident. She’d just returned home from a Bank of America appointment where–ironically enough–she had completed a refinance negotiation for her house at 533 Conejo Road. (The documents were to be signed Monday, though Ingersoll wonders if the arrangement holds now that the house is gone. Bank representatives had yet to return her calls regarding the question.) After finishing dinner with her son Grey, 12, Ingersoll got a call alerting her that a fire was very close. Just how close she could never have imagined. Checking outside, the sound of sirens ripped through the air and enormous flames were immediately visible beyond the adjacent hill. They ran inside to begin collecting essentials: lap tops, memorabilia, the odd piece of art. Grey grabbed his electric guitar and trombone and a friend’s amplifier he’d borrowed.

Ingersoll was in the process of grabbing a box of legal documents-crucial papers relating to her recent divorce. “They were exceedingly well organized,” she lamented. In just that moment, a gush of hot air and embers blasted through her window, “I dropped [the box] and said, ‘We gotta get outta here.'” At the very last second, with the car loaded up, their cat escaped from the passenger side door and there was no time to chase her. Their escape was complicated by news from a stranger-a man in a Volvo she did not recognize–that the gate through Sycamore Canyon Road was locked. Ingersoll opted instead to drive up Conejo, to Mission Ridge, ultimately connecting to Foothill Road, a much longer and more dangerous route.

Ingersoll and her son stayed with friends. Later that evening, her boyfriend talked his way back to the property to find the cat. What he found instead was the entire neighborhood burned to the ground, Ingersoll recalled, and no sign of the cat.

Ingersoll met with a Farmer’s Insurance representative outside the Red Cross shelter at San Marcos High School for nearly an hour. She described the whole experience as an almost Kali-like transformation, where you walk through fire and come out stronger. “You kind of fear death no longer because you’ve already died,” she said. Grey missed school today but didn’t seem overly despondent because of it. Ingersoll added, “For the fist time since I came to town in 1976, everything I have fits into my car.”

Barry and Jenelle Ford’s house, at 447 Conejo Lane, was close to Ingersoll’s and their story every bit as dramatic. Standing on his deck around 5:40 p.m., Barry Ford noticed a glow on the mountain above them. Looking through his binoculars, he found it was actually a raging-out-of-control blaze. The wind was blowing away from them, in an eastward direction, so he wasn’t worried. Still, Ford, his wife, and son began getting ready to evacuate. After a few minutes, however, the wind shifted and there was “flame and ash everywhere,” he said. Loading his truck, he considered hitching his boat to his car and saving it. At the very moment he turned to look at the boat, a wall of flame rose just 15 feet behind it. “Forget it,” he thought, “we’re outta here.” He and his wife and 10-year-old son drove their two cars away from the house.

Getting out was scarier, and more challenging, than it had to be, they said, because they were also informed Sycamore Canyon gate was closed. “We had to climb the hill [road] behind our house, to get out,” he said. The traffic was bottle necked, he said. Janelle Ford acknowledged they did not know definitively that their house is gone, though all the neighboring houses are confirmed burned. “There’s always the slim possibility that we have the one house that didn’t get hit,” she said.

Seeing the silhouettes of his son and wife in the car behind him, with the fire in the background-on their way to safety-was all he needed, Ford said. “If I hadn’t experienced such a close call, I never would be this happy.”

A third Conejo Road resident-Don Fritzen-lost his home at 327 Conejo Road. He and his wife were in Carpinteria when the Tea fire broke out. Driving home around 6:15 p.m., they saw the flames consuming the mountainside by their house. Their first thought was of their dog, Mulligan-stuck at home.

With Sycamore Canyon gated, the Fritzens had to take a circuitous route home. It was a very tense drive; past Parma Park, which was completely engulfed in flames, embers and ash flying around, and confused motorists stopping in the middle of the road, hesitating, and changing directions. The couple had to talk their way past two checkpoints to get to their house, temperatures rising outside from 70 degrees to more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit as they approached their house, where flames got to between 200 and 300 yards from the house. “We had only 10 or 15 minutes to get our things,” Fritzen said. “You try to look and you have to assess what do you need to take and what do you not need to take. My wife and I are both golfers and we both took our golf clubs. I got my hole-in-one trophy.” He learned the house burned completely while speaking to an Allstate Insurance agent over the phone. The agent told him, “I have your neighbor sitting right here, and he says your whole hillside is gone.” Allstate Insurance representatives gave Fritzen and his wife a voucher for five days lodging at a hotel and meals. “[When] it runs out, we can save our receipts and they’ll reimburse us,” he said.

City officials did not immediately return calls regarding the Sycamore Canyon gate. Other residents evacuating from the area found the gate closed as late as 7 p.m., an hour and 14 minutes after the fire erupted. The Ingersoll and Ford families left around 6:15 p.m. The question is sure to be a source of much discussion in the days and weeks ahead.


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