Saving San Ysidro Ranch During the Thomas Fire

Report from the Frontlines of World-Famous Resort in the Hills of Montecito

Photo Credit: Paul Wellman
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We never thought the Thomas Fire would reach Santa Barbara, like the rest of the community. But our protocol was that we would treat a voluntary evacuation as mandatory because we have guests in our 42 cottages, the two restaurants that are sold out almost every night, and hundreds of employees.

Once that order came, every morning we would meet with the firefighters on the property and come up with a game plan. It changed every day, based on the wind conditions and relative humidity. We had so many different scenarios: Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D. No one was sleeping, and we were all drinking 10 pots of coffee a day. It was high stress. I was at the ranch for 10 straight days. When I left on Sunday, I didn’t know what day of the week it was, to be honest with you. It was nonstop.

But there was lots of downtime when they were just hanging out, everyone shooting the shit, drinking coffee, telling stories. They’d ask about the ranch and who’s stayed there. I got the sense that they all realized how special the ranch is and that they really cared about the property. They understood that it was a big responsibility and told me that they were going to do everything in their power to make sure it’s still here. The battalion chiefs would call me five times a day to explain what was happening, and they told me, “You guys are pretty much ground zero and priority number one because of the way you’re situated.”

I can’t say enough about how they were so prepared, so thorough. They cleaned gutters; they cleaned roofs; they raked out our creekside, tons of leaves and branches. They cleaned the ranch top to bottom. They got rid of anything that could potentially be a fire hazard. I’ve never seen anything like that, the way they mobilized, the way they operated.

When it finally blew from Toro Canyon west into Montecito, it was pretty much all hands on deck. That’s when we had the OES [Office of Emergency Services] strike team come in their lime-green trucks. At the top of the ranch is a huge dirt lot that we use as defensible space. We started staging trucks up there.

On Saturday morning, there were two strike teams, 10 engines, and 50 guys on the ranch. It was like a bomb had gone off ​— ​engines and hose lines were everywhere. We woke up around 5 a.m. for coffee and could see a glow in the valley. Around 6 a.m., the wind starts howling 40-50 miles per hour, and the whole left side of the canyon gets enveloped in flames. It was just insane. Within an hour, it went down three ridges.

If the winds would have been due south, I think the ranch would have been lost. But because it was a southwest wind, it whipped around the canyon and then went down toward East Mountain Drive. Little did we know that it hooked behind it and came across Park Lake. That’s where they lost the structures, immediately to the right of the ranch.

The fire started coming down this wash where there are eucalyptus trees and oak trees, and it pushed right to the property’s edge. The guys were on the back decks of cottages, spraying down trees. It was raining embers on the ranch. Some of our umbrellas caught fire, and our fibrous doormats caught on fire too. But they were so prepared that as soon as the embers hit the ground, they were put out immediately.

Now that I look back, there really was no worry there. They knew exactly what this thing was gonna do and how they were gonna fight it. They were so prepared that it was really no big deal.

And that wasn’t all. When a new strike team came in Sunday morning, they asked me if there was anything they could do, since the fire threat had moved on. Next thing you know, these guys are washing windows, cleaning gutters, hosing down the roofs, raking leaves, picking up trash. They told me that their priorities were life, property, and the environment. It almost made me cry.

Here’s a list of the firefighters who helped save San Ysidro Ranch.

OES Strike Team 4803A

San Joaquin County Fire

Battalion Chief Scott Arganbright


Engaged in Saturday’s firefight.

OES Strike Team 2818A

Monterey County Fire

Battalion Chief Doug McCoun


Prepared property and cleaned up after fire.

CalFire Crew Chief Bill Barteau

His team fought the fire directly.

Montecito Fire Battalion Chief Travis Ederer

He was instrumental in providing info and making sure the ranch was top priority.

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