When firefighters at Montecito Fire Protection District Station 2 looked up into the dark hills of Montecito Thursday evening around 5:45 p.m., a red glow already portended a crisis in the making. They left the station at Sycamore Canyon and Cold Spring roads and headed toward a one- to two-acre fire. Arriving on the scene minutes later, the crew found that angry winds had already spread the blaze too far for them to control and had begun to push it into the ranks of the most devastating wildfires Santa Barbara County had ever suffered. By the time fire crews were leaving the scene nearly a week later, news was already circulating about the group of teenagers who’d had a bonfire the night before, leaving behind the sparks to ignite the wind-borne wildfire.
Visible from up the coast at UCSB to down in Ventura, the fire rode gusts moving as quickly as 70 miles per hour at time. “Mother Nature pretty much took over,” said Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace of the rapidly worsening situation. By 7:30 p.m. the burning entity had been named the Tea Fire, after the gardens near which it began (see page 32). County fire and law enforcement officials quickly evacuated several areas, eventually displacing people from Alameda Padre Serra in the City of Santa Barbara north to Camino Cielo. The western evacuation boundary reached Mission Canyon. The city and county activated their emergency operations center, and the response was in full tilt. Montecito Fire’s Station 2 became a staging area for those fighting the blaze. Evacuees, media, and law enforcement agents clogged Montecito streets.
As Montecito Fire District officials mapped out a plan in back of the station, the Vandenberg Hotshot team was among the first wave of firefighters to arrive. Santa Barbara County’s fleet of water-dropping helicopters were eventually joined by those from Los Angeles County, taking on water at Santa Barbara Junior High before night-flying to the hills to dump their loads. After hearing the news, Ventura County didn’t even wait for a call to send 10 engines up Highway 101 to Santa Barbara. As a result of the proximity of thousands of homes to the blaze, the focus Thursday night would be evacuation and fire suppression, in that order.
As the glow intensified, the Santa Barbara eastside neighborhood was buzzing with activity-a mix of awe and panic as the glow of the fire expanded, people standing on street corners with neighbors, amateur photographers pulling out their tripods, and residents taking a close-to-front-row seat atop their cars and on the tailgates of pickup trucks to assess the situation. Some pondered whether to pack up valuables and flee or await orders to do so. As law enforcement officers drove by with a bullhorn giving mandatory evacuation orders to residents north of Alameda Padre Serra (APS), some 40 people gathered in the driveway of an already abandoned home at the intersection of APS and Gutierrez Street to observe the fire beyond on the other side of the canyon. Trees could be heard popping and emergency lights dotted the neighborhood spread across the hill.
By 2 a.m. the following morning, the fire had done most of its damage, with officials already estimating more than 1,500 acres had burned. A morning update showed the fire had burned into a jagged-edge triangle, with the Riviera on the south, St. Mary’s Seminary to the west, and Westmont College to the east.
At least 100 homes were feared damaged, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had declared a state of emergency. The historic Mt. Calvary Retreat Center, founded in 1947, was burned almost to the ground. On the Westmont campus, fire decimated nine structures, including Bauder Hall, the physics building, the old math building, and four of the 17 buildings that make up Clark Residence Halls-all while more than 800 students were sitting in the fireproof, concrete gymnasium. San Marcos High School quickly became the temporary home for more than 200 evacuees.
Later on Friday, while the blaze still crept west toward Mission Canyon and east toward Cold Spring Canyon, firefighting efforts were proving to be effective. Crews had moved into suppression mode, putting out burning homes and hotspots where flames still lurked. Despite the good news, looming large were forecasts of more sundowner winds for that evening, anticipated to be as strong-if not stronger-than the previous night’s howlers.
But the winds never came, allowing firefighters to gain the upper hand and effectively handle the fire. Saturday saw a visit from Schwarzenegger who, for the third time in 15 months, came to see firsthand the destruction caused by a Santa Barbara wildfire. “There really is no fire season in California any longer,” said Schwarzenegger’s tour guide, CalFire Director Ruben Grijalva. “It’s year-round.”
By Sunday, the skies above Santa Barbara cleared to their more typical blue, though temperatures-and some areas in the hills-remained hot. The Tea Fire was officially declared contained a day ahead of time on Tuesday, with more than 1,940 acres having suffered beneath it.
At least 210 homes-including 130 within city limits-were destroyed. These homes included 47 on Conejo Road, 14 in the Westmont faculty housing neighborhood of Las Barrancas, and those of at least 25 families and three faculty members in the Cold Spring School District.
One of those Westmont faculty members was Dave Wolf, athletic director and soccer coach. He had just gotten home from soccer practice and was getting out of his car in the driveway of his home at 825 Westmont Road when he saw the fire. His family immediately gathered belongings and evacuated to the home of one of his former players. While Wolf was pretty certain by midnight on Friday that his house had burned, his fears were confirmed 11 hours later, when he headed back to his neighborhood with his oldest son, Tanner. “We had a good cry,” said Wolf, who had an optimistic outlook on the tragedy nevertheless. “Over the course of time, these things replenish themselves.” His home was one of 14, out of the 41 homes in the neighborhood, that burned. Wolf’s men’s soccer team-which saw one player lose his rental home in the fire and two others see significant damage to their dorm rooms-won its league championship 2-0 in a passionate and inspiring game on Monday.
On Westmont’s campus, there is some good news mixed with the bad. Three of the burned structures were scheduled for demolition in the coming weeks to make way for future development. Officials also announced classes are slated to resume after the Thanksgiving holiday, and students were allowed to gather belongings Tuesday.
The cause of the fire has been determined to be a bonfire started by a group of 10 18- to 22-year-olds at the Tea Gardens for three or so hours the previous night. The group apparently thought they had extinguished the fire, but hadn’t, and the coals were reignited by the strong winds the following evening. “It appears this fire was the result of carelessness,” Sheriff Bill Brown said at a press conference Tuesday. Fire officials had ruled out downed power lines or gas lines and determined the fire must have been caused by human activity. A tip line was established, and 40 tips came in. One anonymous tip led investigators to the 10 individuals-both male and female-who were reportedly cooperating with authorities. As of press time, Brown wouldn’t release any more specific information except to say that members of the group went to the same school. Reports will be sent to the District Attorney’s Office, which will determine what charges the 10 may face next week.
While rumors of looting spread throughout the weekend, neither the County Sheriff’s Department nor the city Police Department had received reports of such activity. Officers did, however, arrest two men who had wandered behind evacuation lines-one who had allegedly violated probation and another who had a warrant out for his arrest. A third person also attempted to get through the police checkpoint while allegedly driving under the influence.
The fire injured 25 people, most seriously a married couple who received severe burns as they tried to evacuate their upper Hyde Tract residence. Lance and Carla Hoffman, who are currently in critical but stable condition at a regional burn center, also lost to the fire the home they were renting (see story page 28).
One death may be associated with the fire-that of 98-year-old Carl Herman-who died in a hotel room after being evacuated. Herman, married to his wife, Nellie, for the past 80 years, passed away while his son prepared lunch. “I don’t think I’m going to make it,” Herman told his son Ben. “No, you can,” Ben replied. Herman said it was okay, and Nellie “prayed him into the arms of Jesus,” their granddaughter Lisa Schuler recalled. Carl Herman, with his wife, Nellie, has more than 150 descendants, and his family believes that the stress of being evacuated, coupled with the potential loss of his home, was too much for the man. (The home, however, was spared.) “He lived a very rare life. It was well-lived and finished well,” Schuler said.