A blazing palm tree along Highway 101 near Milpas Street caught Santa Barbarans’ attention Thursday at around 5:30 p.m., especially given the small explosions coming from the fire. In the narrow passage between the highway and a neighboring business, a homeless camp had caught fire — how is under investigation — and a palm tree, whose fronds hung down to the ground, went up in flames after one of the explosions, a witness said.
No one was at the encampment when firefighters arrived from Station 2, which is nearby on Cacique Street. The engine crew had been returning to the station when they saw the evening sky alight. Ultimately, five engines, a ladder truck, and a battalion chief from Santa Barbara City Fire responded to the fire next to 7 North Nopal Street, which houses Tileco.
Gina Flint had worried about the homeless camp on the other side of the family-owned business’s warehouse, especially after a customer said they’d seen children at the camp. “You can see it from the roof of the warehouse,” she said, “but it’s tucked in back there.” Some of her employees had tried to get into the space, but turned back. “It’s frightening,” she said, adding that they’d seen propane tanks and tarps back there. Tileco’s first shop and warehouse had been on Modoc Road. It was wiped out in the Painted Cave Fire in 1990, and Flint said she’s been concerned about fire ever since.
Back in May, Flint contacted the Santa Barbara Police Department and Caltrans. Two police officers came to take a look. They left, Flint thought, to get other officers due to the size of the camp, but no officers returned. After Flint filled out a report to Caltrans online, informing them of the homeless camp, she received a reply on November 4 stating the situation had been resolved. Caltrans workers had come by the morning after the fire, she said, but she planned to wait until after the holidays to notify authorities of her concerns.
Santa Barbara Police Department spokesperson Anthony Wagner said the agency works “daily and weekly with Caltrans to clean up problematic properties just like this” for public health and safety reasons. Regarding the May visit, SBPD was checking its records and could not provide information before the Indy deadline. Caltrans cited the holidays and absent personnel for its inability to provide a response by deadline.
Caltrans spokesperson Jim Shivers wrote in an email on December 23 that the camps had been cleaned out in May with the help of the City of Santa Barbara. He was unsure why the resolution letter arrived in November, but the camps are slated for cleanup again in mid January.
Firefighters knocked the fire down in about an hour and a half, Battalion Chief Robert Mercado said. One or two lanes of the three-lane highway closed, too, which was hard on commuters, he noted. But the engine crew needed the space to fight the fire safely, and the California Highway Patrol closed the lanes for about an hour.
“There are so many types of ignition sources,” Mercado said, but on first glance, the fire seems to have started on the ground and spread to the trees. He explained the small popping sounds or explosions could have come from aerosol cans or small cans of propane used in cook stoves. The firefighters were intent on keeping the fire from the warehouse, he said. The wall between the open area and the business was cinder block covered in stucco, Mercado said, both good, fire-resistant materials that helped keep the fire from spreading.
The area, 15 to 20 feet across, had been fenced off, but Mercado said a gate or fence had been opened up by whoever was living there to gain access. “Homeless camps are a constant problem for Caltrans,” he said. “Once they get an area cleaned up, someone else is already setting up camp there.”