This photo was taken several hours before the cave-in on September 6 injured a young man when a 100- to 200-pound boulder fell from the ceiling.
© L. Dighera, 2014; All Rights Reserved:

The caves overlooking More Mesa Beach, and more specifically the fires that people light in the caves, have concerned the nearby residents for several years. The injury to a student in a rockfall a couple weekends ago brings the problem into high relief. And it reminds us of the fatal cave-in that happened in 1989.

About a year ago, Bonnie Freeman, a community activist living on the western boundary of More Mesa organized a meeting with More Mesa Shores homeowners, the County Sheriff, County Fire, and a representative from Supervisor Janet Wolf’s office. At that meeting, homeowners were directed to report fires in the caves to the fire department through 9-1-1 dispatch.

© L. Dighera, 2014; All Rights Reserved:

I have observed fires at the caves throughout the weekends of the summer months. The fire department was responding, on a workload-permitting basis, to such an extent that a captain at Station 12 called to talk about the difficulty firefighters had negotiating the cliffs in the dead of night and the limited resources of the fire department. So I discussed the issue with Fire Marshal Rob Heckman in July, who said firefighters could only respond to bonfires, not the small cave fires. However, he and Sheriff’s Lieutenant Butch Arnoldi had agreed to have 9-1-1 dispatch direct More Mesa fire reports to the Sheriff’s Office, though Heckman believed the property needed “no trespassing” signs for the Sheriff’s Office’s actions to carry any weight. More Mesa is only posted with a single old sign leaning against the toe of the bluff substantially to the east of the caves in question.

In our conversation, I mentioned the hazard posed by rocks in the cave ceiling possibly working loose due to thermal expansion and contraction from the cave fires. Heckman related that County Fire had scrutinized the caves and concluded that was not a hazard. I reminded him of the 1989 fatality in these caves and asked if their “inspector” had any formal training in geology. Heckman indicated that he did not.

At about that same time, Freeman succeeded in having the county install signs to prohibit parking at the de facto entrances to More Mesa from 2-6 a.m. in order to discourage overnight parties in the cliffs. The frequency of the fires I observed subsided significantly, and I ceased reporting them.

Grafitti at More Mesa caves
Bonnie Freeman

In my opinion, the caves have become a public nuisance and are increasing the instances of gang-related tagging that was beginning to spread along More Mesa Beach. While the new owner of More Mesa, reportedly Khalid Saud Al Shobily LLC, is deciding what to develop on it (if that is still his plan), the land goes unmanaged. This has led to what I see as a lack of interest by the California Coastal Commission, lack of authority over More Mesa by the county enforcement authorities, and an absentee owner who has made no visible attempt to warn the public of the hazard posed by the caves on his property nor manage public access and use.

So when young people bring their libations to the caves for an evening away from the restrictions of the rule of law, it is virtually inevitable that less-than-responsible acts will occur. With the drought, the brush on More Mesa is very dry and just ripe for ignition by a stray ember from a fire in the caves. The likely result would be a tragic loss of most of the plants and animals that have called More Mesa home for eons, including rare and endangered species.

Before the situation becomes worse, it appears to me that the county, the property owner, the Coastal Commission, More Mesa Shores stakeholders, and perhaps the More Mesa Preservation Coalition must hold joint private and public hearings to hammer out a reasonable policy for dealing with this problem. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of time before another injury or fatality occurs from a cave-in, an inebriated youth falls down the cliff, or one of Santa Barbara’s treasured wild habitats amidst urban development goes up in smoke and the rare and endangered species with it. At the very least, signs warning of the hazard that fires in the caves pose should be posted.


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