Wildfire has been an implacable part of South Coast history since time immemorial. By 1964, though, there had not been a major fire in the hills behind Santa Barbara and along San Marcos Pass for more than 20 years, and the hillsides and canyons were choked with brush and chaparral. The Coyote Fire of September 22-October 1, 1964, would prove to be the costliest and one of the most destructive fires up to that time.
Around 2 p.m. on the 22nd, most probably a spark from an auto’s exhaust ignited dry brush below Mountain Drive near the intersection with Coyote Road. Fire crews from Santa Barbara city, the county, and the Forest Service responded, and two tankers lifted off from Santa Barbara airport. Winds were gusty, and flames soon moved both up and down the hillside away from Mountain Drive and eastward beyond Coyote Road. As evening descended, more than 200 acres had burned, but the aerial assault seemed to be having an effect.
Darkness grounded the tankers, and the wind began to gust above 45 miles an hour. Fire exploded in all directions as the winds continued to shift around the compass, spurring flames well over 100 feet high. Hope of containment or control disappeared.
By mid-morning of the next day, the 200-acre blaze had grown into a 1,800-acre monster that had already destroyed 20 homes. The winds continued to howl, making it difficult for the tanker and helicopter pilots to get down into the canyons to drop their loads. Power lines presented additional risks. The rugged terrain, choking underbrush, and lack of roads made mobility for the ground crews extremely arduous. By second nightfall, the fire was moving eastward toward Romero Canyon, northward up Cold Springs Canyon, over the top of the Santa Ynez Range, and along San Ysidro Canyon, threatening Westmont College and San Ysidro Ranch. At Westmont, where the firefighters’ base camp was set up, students pitched in to save the campus and surrounding homes.
During the night, the fire devoured residences as it moved from Rattlesnake Canyon to Mission Canyon, then on to San Antonio Canyon. By morning, the Coyote Fire had burned 23,000 acres in less than 48 hours and had become a major threat to homes in the San Marcos Pass area. Crews set backfires along Highway 154 to deprive the fire of nourishment, but the winds continued to toy with control efforts, and by day’s end, 19 more homes were gone and a total of 35,000 acres blackened.
The following day, the flames claimed a life in Romero Canyon when a firefighter from Yreka, John L. Patterson Sr., was trapped above Summerland. Three other men barely escaped the same fate by covering themselves with soil along a dirt road as the fire raced past.
Cooling fog eventually slowed the fire, and containment was announced on October 1, although mop-up operations continued until the 10th. The fire’s legacy was a grim one: one dead, 227 injured, 157 structures destroyed, including 94 homes, and a total of some 67,000 acres blackened. Property damage and containment costs came to $5.7 million. For those who lived through it, the Coyote Fire has remained unforgettable.