When Sheriff Bill Brown took to the microphone Tuesday morning at the Earl Warren Showgrounds, he was surrounded by a sweeping phalanx of elected officials firefighters, and, of course, news reporters and TV cameras. Such press briefings have become an integral part of the kabuki theater that’s evolved out of Santa Barbara’s collective response to wildfires and other natural disasters. They’re a vehicle by which vital information is shared in a carefully calibrated format and some semblance of reassurance can be conveyed: Help is on the way. Someone is in control. All is not lost.
Brown, sheriff now for 13 years, is an old hand. As he approached the mic, he turned to sign language interpreter Katie Voice and joked, “Looks like we’re getting the band back together.” If so, Brown has emerged as the lead singer. Given the frayed relations between Brown and the local firefighting establishment — over turf, terrain, tax dollars, and temperament — that might seem an unlikely development. But Brown gets stagecraft; it’s in his bones. His mother was an accomplished stage actress. His father was the advance man for pioneering televangelist Billy Graham back when Graham was still packing circus tents with his revival show.
More than that, though, are the sheer numbers of fires Brown and his department have had to respond to. In 13 years, there have been 16. Of those, 14 were major fires. Seven were serious enough to require evacuations. Evacuations are Brown’s call; his department is charged with warning occupants in evacuation zones so that they can get out in time. “My two predecessors, Sheriff Jim Thomas and Jim Anderson, had one major fire between the two of them,” Brown noted. He mentioned these numbers to a close advisor right before his recent re-election. He was told, “’I wouldn’t use that as a campaign slogan, if I was you.”
With so many fires and so many evacuations, it’s inevitable that Brown has come in for some criticism over the years. But this year, with this fire, Santa Barbara managed to dodge a bullet; the rain fell, the sun came out, and people who evacuated were allowed to go back home in time for Thanksgiving. The Cave Fire, it turns out, was the first big Santa Barbara fire for the county’s new fire chief, Mark Hartwig, the city of Santa Barbara’s new chief, Erik Nickel, and the county’s new Office of Emergency Management czar Kelly Hubbard. It was their first time around the dance floor together. It’s a dance floor Brown knows well. As usual, there’ve been some questions about the timing of certain emergency alerts. But for now, people are relieved. No one got hurt.
These days, Brown conspicuously doesn’t say such things as, “It’s the new normal.” It happens to be true, but it’s also old news. The last time Brown uttered such words, the governor of California was Arnold Schwarzenegger, with whom Brown shared the microphone at — where else? —Earl Warren Showgrounds. And yes, the Gubinator was there in response to one of Santa Barbara’s many wildland infernos.
“This is the price we pay to live here,” said Brown in a recent interview. In the Midwest, people shelter in tornado cellars when the twisters inevitably strike. In New Orleans, deadly hurricanes are part of that city’s lethal charm. Of fires, Brown said, “This is our natural disaster price.”
It was late Monday afternoon when Brown first got wind of what would become dubbed the Cave Fire. He was notified of the fire just as he went into his last scheduled appointment of the day. “Oh, it’s been knocked down,” he was told. It was a whole different reality, Brown said, when he got out of the appointment 45 minutes later. “The whole mountainside was ablaze.” It was terrain that hadn’t burned in 29 years, not since the Painted Cave Fire wiped out 500 homes in an hour, sprinted down pretty much the same hillside, and jumped all six lanes of Highway 101 in a single bound.
Chaparral stood six feet high; wild grasses nearly three feet. With winds gusting at 40 miles an hour, one senior county fire fighter clocked the Cave Fire’s descent down the mountainside at 55 miles an hour. At the Bridge to Nowhere — located just a few miles upslope of Cathedral Oaks on Highway 154 — the fire veered off simultaneously to the east and to the west.
In short order, a fire that started at 15 acres exploded into 100 acres, then 500, and eventually topped out at about 5,000. In the first minute, 9-1-1 got 21 calls. From 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., 9-1-1 would receive 268 calls. In the same time span a week before, there were just 54. Eventually — thanks to California’s vast mutual aid network — nearly 900 firefighters would be dispatched to do what they could to knock it down. Ten aircraft were available. No other fires, it turned out, were running rampant throughout California. And of course, they all got a massive assist from the dousing provided by Mother Nature.
But before all that happened — and the fire was 20 percent contained — there was considerable fear and suspense. This one, higher-ups at the county warned in hushed but freaked-out tones, might get out of hand. Large boxes were drawn on the map; people in one had to evacuate. People in the other needed to be on standby. The boxes would change over time. Alerts were sent via text message to cell phone subscribers. Eighty deputies and search and rescue workers were dispatched to knock on 2,284 doors. Of those, the occupants of 517 were in the process of evacuating. The occupants of 324 announced they were staying. Some, Brown said, indicated they intended to stay and fight the fire to save their property. Such thinking, Brown said, was ill advised. “If trained firefighters with all their resources can’t knock this thing down, somehow I don’t think someone with a garden hose is going to have that much success.”
In the end, only one structure was destroyed. Santa Barbara got off easy. We got only a light dusting of the “Santa Barbara snow” — big flakes of burnt ash. And if Sheriff Bill Brown is lucky, he might make it to the end of this term without having to make another natural disaster performance with the microphone.