Fire near Calle Real | Credit: Mike Eliason/S.B. County Fire

Dark smoke rose from a heavily wooded area across the street from the Maravilla retirement complex in Goleta on Black Friday in the most visible of a number of fires that broke out this past weekend. By Sunday night, about five fires in homes, a garage, and roadside brush had been contained by firefighters in south Santa Barbara County.

The Goleta fire started around 4 p.m. near a homeless camp among eucalyptus trees and heavy brush sheltering the camp from view of Calle Real and northbound 101 highway at the Patterson Avenue onramp. County Fire Station 12 is right next door to the senior facility, and crews brought the fire under control by around 4:45 p.m. A woman was taken to Cottage hospital with possible burn injuries.

A second fire about 100 yards to the north was reported a half hour later, reaching up into the trees overhanging another camp and scattering embers into the highway lanes and center divider. Sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers continued to divert traffic to the fast lane to leave the slow lane open for firefighting work. Weather conditions on Friday were very dry but free of wind. Investigators are examining both scenes to determine the cause of the fires.

About a half-dozen large fires have occurred along the 101 at homeless camps in the past year, County Fire Captain Daniel Bertucelli estimated. Countywide, the fire department has responded to 35 calls to encampments for issues related to illegal campfires, barbecue smoke, or vegetation and trash fires as of mid-October, County Fire Marshal Rob Hazard said. In years past, they’d get about 10 such calls, he said.

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Although the highway fires were on Caltrans property, Goleta’s director of Public Safety, Vyto Adomaitis, said the city was coordinating with the Sheriff’s Office and Caltrans to clean up the areas. He added Goleta “was very concerned about these homeless camps and the fires that have occurred.” The city attorney was working on an ordinance to prohibit homeless camps in high fire zones, which will go to the City Council in January.

Adomaitis recognized the COVID guidance from health officials to keep homeless camps in place, and also the Boise decision’s limitation on removing people attempting to sleep in a public place. The city ordinance would explore “what other applicable laws and regulations … can be applied in addressing the homeless camps appearing in the Union Pacific Railroad Corridor, along Highway 101, and other areas in the city.” According to Fire Marshal Rob Hazard, if a homeless camp posed fire dangers, for public safety’s sake, they could be removed, which is what happened to clusters of tents in three Isla Vista parks last month.

The fires last Friday were so visible the Humane Society on Overpass Road off South Patterson decided to move its animals to the shelter in Santa Maria. “We all just slept better knowing they were safe,” said Dori Villalon, the Santa Barbara director of operations. Seven dogs and six cats made the trip but were back at the shelter by Saturday, she said.

Earlier on Friday, an electric wall heater is blamed for starting a fire on the 300 block of West Pedregosa Street at around 3 a.m. The fire was contained to one bedroom of the apartment building and reported by the man in the unit above. The apartment had working smoke detectors, which melted in the fire. No one was injured.

It was the second such fire in the past couple weeks, and City Fire Marshal Joe Poiré said wall-heater fires were common this time of year. Some heaters have an “off/on” switch, but others can only be turned down. Most heaters come on automatically at 50 degrees, Poiré explained, unless they’ve positively been turned to the “off” position. When heaters go unused during the summer, people often place combustibles like bookcases against them. When the heater comes on when the temperature drops — and recent nights have been as low as 39 degrees, he pointed out — fire can result.

Residents should check their heaters — gas or electric — to make sure their outlets are clear. A gas heater is off when the pilot light is out, Poiré said, and the Gas Company is always happy to come out to turn it on, check the unit, and avoid a fire.

Two other fires occurred on Saturday and Sunday. One late Saturday night at Park Lane in Montecito was a chimney fire that smoldered into the second-story walls; the family escaped safely. The Sunday fire was reported at Del Monte and San Pascual streets at 7 p.m., a deliberately set fire in a carport and garage that damaged a vehicle, Poiré said.

City Fire’s investigators were also looking into another series of fires from Friday night, Poiré said. Several very small fires were set along the railroad tracks near Milpas Street at around 6 or 7 p.m. that night. They were not warming or cooking fires, Poiré said. City Fire had been tracking small blazes for the past two or three weeks and consider them possibly related.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on December 1 to include statements from the City of Goleta. It was revised on December 7 to correct Fire Captain Daniel Bertucelli’s name.

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