Since 1965, the Painted Cave Volunteer Fire Department had protected the mountain community and nearby cities of Santa Barbara and Goleta from wildfires. The department was disbanded during a lawsuit accusing its longtime chief of misappropriating up to $675,000 in funds. | Credit: Paul Wellman

Amid hot and windy days, red-flag warnings, and a highly charged lawsuit alleging its chief used departmental funds to buy personal belongings like an $1,800 dining room table and $1,200 artificial Christmas tree, the Painted Cave Volunteer Fire Department has shut down and is selling off its equipment to pay its legal bills.

On Sunday, October 20, Painted Cave residents watched in anger and astonishment as Chief Kevin Buckley and a small contingent of supporters waved mocking goodbyes while they drove the department’s fleet of engines and support SUVs to Mission City Auto in Goleta. By Tuesday morning, most of the vehicles were gone, except for a wood chipper and a red Chevy Suburban.

Phil Seymour, an attorney, former hotshot for the Forest Service, and member of the ad hoc committee of 16 Painted Cave residents and firefighters suing Buckley, wondered if the liquidation was legal. One of the department’s engines was purchased with a FEMA grant. “He could face criminal penalties,” Seymour said. “We’ll be pursuing all possible remedies.”

The original lawsuit, filed in March, sprang out of concerns over the last several years by the mountain community that Buckley and the department’s board of directors were running the organization — a tax-exempt nonprofit subject to open-government rules — with “incompetence and secretive management style.” Meetings were held in private and any efforts, even by previous board members, who have since resigned in frustration, to access basic financial records were met with “furious resistance.”

Kevin Buckley

The complaint accuses the current board and Buckley, who has served as chief since 1998, of perpetrating a “major misappropriation of funds.” That included paying Buckley — a “volunteer” — an annual salary of $60,000 and allowing him, “either directly or through his graphic art firm Buckley Design,” to receive over $675,000 in department funds since 2005, which he reportedly used to buy a 62-inch flat-screen TV and make multiple trips to Disneyland, among other personal purchases. For many years, a large portion of the department’s budget was covered by private donations from the Wood-Claeyssens Foundation. The complaint also alleges Buckley received checks for contract work that never happened or carried price tags that were “grossly inflated.”

In August, Judge Thomas Anderle ruled in favor of Seymour and the committee. He ordered the department to start holding public meetings and turn over financial documents. The board’s lawyers had argued that doing so would be so costly and time-consuming that it would mean the end of the department. Anderle stated in his ruling, however, that they presented “no evidence of any cost associated with holding open meetings, nor does it quantify any inconvenience.”

Seymour said this week that he’d hoped the decision would make Buckley and board “see the light.” Instead, they continue to fight the order as they dismantle the 54-year-old organization. “We underestimated how creepy and evil these people are,” he said. “They’re just completely out of touch with reality.” While Buckley has maintained relationships with a handful of loyalists, a much larger share of the 200 or so residents of the Painted Cave neighborhood are firmly on the side of the committee. More than 90 residents showed up at a community gathering to demand information from Buckley and his band.

In a prepared response, the boardmembers have accused their critics of attempting a “hostile takeover” and “smear campaign.” They suggested some of the former volunteers were guilty of their own “improper behavior,” including taking an engine out of the county without permission, and they claimed the case could set a dangerous standard for adhering to open-government rules. “The Board has a broader responsibility to see that this frivolous legal action based on the self-interest and greed of a few members of a small community does NOT set a legal precedent that could damage or destroy volunteer fire departments statewide,” their statement reads.

Now that the Painted Cave Volunteer Fire Department has ceased to exist, Seymour and a crew of former members have created the Mountain Ember Team to protect the community. They’ve been cutting fuel breaks and weeding alongside roads, and strategizing how best to put out spot fires ignited by flying embers, the biggest threat to the neighborhood and the inspiration for the new group’s name. Buckley, meanwhile, recently lost the lease on his Painted Cave home and moved out. He’s storing his belongings in the closed-up firehouse.


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