Former Santa Barbara City Councilmember, who led the 2014 push for district elections, says that his home exploded in the wildfires now raging in New Mexico, where he currently resides. | Credit: Peter Vandenbelt

Leo Martinez, the first Latino elected to the Santa Barbara City Council in the 20th century and Santa Barbara’s chief instigator for district elections, reported that his home in Ruidoso, New Mexico — where he moved many years ago — had exploded in flames during the same infernos that have now damaged 1,400 structures and are believed to have destroyed about 500 homes. Since the fire started early the morning of June 17, nearly 18,000 acres have burned, forcing thousands to flee, killing two, and leaving 29 still unaccounted for.

Martinez, also one of the many cofounders of Santa Barbara’s ever-embattled La Casa de la Raza, said he believed the fire was started by arson but allowed to spread as much as it had because of incompetence.

“This whole fire thing has pushed my buttons,” he stated. “The old Leo is going to have to get going again. I don’t like it, but things need to be said.”

By that, Martinez — elected to the Santa Barbara City Council for one four-year term in 1973 as part of what was then a historic environmental-progressive coalition — suggested the fire was left alone for a two-hour period last week without arial bombardment. Up to that point, he claimed, the fire had been fought by retardant-dropping bombers with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. When they ceased operations, the city and the county fire departments were supposed to pick up the slack, Martinez charged. For two hours, he claimed, that did not happen.

Martinez’s home was built atop the highest peak in Ruidoso. The fire, he said, should never have been able to climb that high. It never had during previous fires.  

Soon, he said, he could hear the nearby trees exploding. Shortly afterward, he could hear his house exploding.

“That thing just went off like a bomb,” he exclaimed.

By then, Martinez and his tenant were already hightailing it for safer ground. Fortunately for Martinez, he had purchased six acres abutting the nearby river. He and about nine refugees have been hanging tight there since the fire started.

Martinez, always outspokenly outspoken, has maintained a lively interest in politics. While he’s switched from Democrat to Republican and back to Democrat again, he’s always held tight to an abiding belief that district elections are more inherently representative of the population at large.

In 1990, he spearheaded an unsuccessful ballot measure to pass district elections in Santa Barbara. In 2014, he was at it again, but this time in the courthouse and only after the state legislature had rewritten the election rules that all but made any legal challenge against the then-prevailing at-large elections a slam dunk.  

Martinez enlisted the legal assistance of his good friend — and former city attorney — Barry Cappello, who filed legal papers against City Hall. City Attorney Ariel Calonne advised the City Council to settle the lawsuit on the grounds that the city would surely lose and have to pay through the nose for the indignity of that defeat. As it was, Cappello would be paid $500,000.

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