Credit: Hugh Margerum

In a letter dated September 6, 1784, Pedro Fages, then governor of Alta and Baja California, observed an “active volcano” below present-day Hope Ranch, which he described at the time as the stretch of coastline between Santa Barbara and a large Chumash settlement in the Goleta Slough. 

“Throughout this site, the ground is so hot one cannot approach it,” he wrote. “It burns continuously in more than 30 places, like geysers that exude dense smoke. From its stench it appears to be from sulfur.” Santa Barbara historian Michael Redmond recalled Fages’s letter in a 2011 column for the Independent

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It wasn’t actually a volcano that Fages observed, but a solfatara, or “fire well” — naturally occurring fissures that give off sulfurous gases and steam. Another was discovered in 1835 at Rincon, which by the 1880s was sending out flames 10 feet high and flinging rocks into the air before going dormant. 

Video Courtesy: Hugh Margerum

Last week, the Hope Ranch solfatara rumbled awake — as it still does from time to time — and started a small, smoldering fire on a section of the bluffs about a mile west of Arroyo Burro Beach. Firefighters responded quickly, even dispatching a helicopter as an added precaution. There was no threat to life or property. Similar incidents occurred in 2019 and 2017.

While the site currently produces only smoke and a few modest flames when the heat ignites nearby brush, it wasn’t long ago that the solfatara had a much more dramatic presence. In the 1920s, it regularly produced hot coals that glowed orange at night. A few nearby residents, annoyed by the smell and a steady flow of curiosity seekers, and fearful of fire danger, even ran a water pipe to the fissure in a failed attempt to extinguish it.

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