Sycamore Canyon Fire 1977

July 26-27, 1977

 

The Coyote fire of 1964 was very bad indeed, but it could have been worse….Under slightly different circumstances probably even more houses would have been burned, or people could have been trapped in large numbers and burned.  This is something to keep in mind when speculating about big fires of the future, for probably our most destructive fires are yet to come.

Dr. Harold Biswell

The Wildfire Threat

 

Some experts believe that had a standard and currently maintained fuelbreak existed along Camino Cielo, the Coyote Fire could have been confined to the coastal slopes and the vital Santa Ynez watershed would have been spared.  Fuel modification or reduction is now an essential part of the fire protection program.  How to attain this is not a simple or inexpensive process.  Mechanical means, application of herbicides, defoliants and desiccants, hand clearing on steep, rocky ridges, and burning, both of piled material and small blocks and fringes of standing brush, are used on the Los Padres to modify fuels, construct fuelbreaks, perform roadside hazard reduction, and convert chaparral to more useful and less flammable cover.  

“Frequently proposals are made to ‘light burn’ …. Usually chaparral either won’t burn at all or it burns with such intensity that it is difficult to control…. The work is costly.  If the fire does not burn hot enough to clean up the fuels the effort is a waster of time and money.  If it burns hot enough to do the job it requires extraordinary measures to keep it under control.  And then the soil exposed to winter rains must be revegetated to prevent excess runoff.

Bill Hansen

Los Padres Forest Supervisor

 

IN 1967, A SPECIAL committee appointed by the County Board of Supervisors and under the direction of Board member Curtis Tunnell releases a report called The Wildfire Threat, Challenge & Choice.  In it, the committee makes six recommendations, four of them dealing with land management issues.

Hazard reduction is the first of these.  An accelerated program of hazard reduction should be instituted without delay, including physical removal of fire hazards, as well as coordinated city, county, state, and federal regulations requiring this, and a beefing up of law enforcement personnel to put teeth into the regulations.

Despite its controversial nature, the committee includes as its second recommendation a proposal that controlled burning be instituted by all levels of government, and include the “assistance and participation” of the Forest Service, on both public and private lands.

Land management recommendations include type conversion of the more flammable chaparral and sage cover to grasses or other vegetative cover; the initiation of studies to find chemicals which will control or retard the growth of new brush and kill old-growth brush; development and implementation of a system of fuelbreaks and access roads in the forest; and creation of a series of fuelbreaks on the front side of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

As a result of this report, at the city and county level, building codes are strengthened.  In the County, prior to the creation of the Building Division in 1954, there haven’t even been any building regulations in the unincorporated areas.  This does provide for some improvement, though unfortunately, it applies only to new construction.  After the Coyote Fire both city and county also enact High Fire Hazard Area ordinances with two sets of requirements, one involving more fire-resistant roofs and walls, and the second brush clearance around homes in fire-prone areas.

The new county ordinance now requires a 30-foot clearance around all structures.  But the Forest Supervisor and City and County fire control officers don’t believe this is enough.  “Let’s put it this way,” Los Padres manager Robert Jones says, “If I lived in the brush I wouldn’t be satisfied with less than 300 feet.  Even Ventura requires a 60-foot clearance.”

 

 

IN THE LOS PADRES National Forest, officials concentrated on creation of fuelbreaks and on brush conversion.  “The real gold is in the tall, burnished grass that grows in place of killed-off sagebrush, mesquite and chaparral,” Lin Maxwell, who is  director of agricultural extension for Santa Barbara County, tells the Forest Service.

Both of fuelbreak construction and brush conversion are accelerated in the early 1970s, especially after the extremely disastrous 1970 fire season.  During a 13-day period from September 22 to October 4, 1970, 17 major wildland fires burn more than 500,000 acres at a fire suppression cost of more than $6 million.  The fires also destroy more than 700 homes and take 16 lives.  In terms of acres burned it is the worst series of fires in California’s history.

Through thinning and clearing of heavy fuels, and replacing the removed ground cover with grasses and forbes, the Forest Service hopes to create relatively fire-safe openings through the chaparral.

Landscape architects help to design the fuelbreaks so they fit as naturally as possible into the environment.  The width is varied—usually from 200 to 600 feet—to take advantage of natural openings and to approximate wherever possible the natural condition of the grass openings.

Range specialists select grasses to be planted that will grow well on the land.  This leads to some controversy.  The Forest Service favors annual grasses that grow quickly.  Botanists favor perennials and other grasses that are more similar to what has grown here in more prehistoric times.  But at a cost of several dollars per pound for the annual grasses versus up to $20 per pound for the more exotic species, the annuals prevail.

To convert the chaparral, one of the techniques is the use of mechanical devices to crush the brush, uprooting it and grinding it into the surface to help minimize erosion during the time from when the grass is planted and the roots systems become effective..

Bulldozers with their blades held 12-to-14 inches off the ground or with railroad ties fixed to the blades are used to mash the chaparral, as are large Navy buoys filled with water which are then dragged along the hillside, huge chains attached between two tractors, or the use of discs.  While this works well on ridgelines and mountain crests, and are invaluable in the development of fuelbreaks, they are not functional on the steep slopes which comprise much of the forest.

On these slopes, or in more fragile areas, crews clear the brush using chain saws, pulaskis, brush hooks, and other hand tools, though this is a much more expensive way to clear the land.

The Forest Service also begins to use herbicides such as 2, 4-D in conjunction with the hand work, and to control crown sprouting, which begins to occur within a month after the cutting.  Sprayed from helicopters in the spring, just before new growth occurs, the chemicals–a central part of the defoliation of much of Vietnam–inhibit this growth, causing the leaves to wither and die.

“We tripled the carrying capacity of the range and prolonged the cattle fattening season using 2, 4-D,” Maxwell says proudly. “We had green feed on the range a month longer than usual because the brush was not using up the water.”

This is especially appealing to the Forest Service.  If they can not only reduce the fuel volume, but slow down the rate of evapo-transpiration and thus gain the County increased water supplies, they will have gone a long way in carrying out their twin goals of fire suppression and water production.

By the late 1960s the use of chemicals to convert the chaparral to grass is well established.  However, there are also disturbing reports coming out of Vietnam about the use of herbicides, especially 2, 4, 5-T—known there as Agent Orange.  While use of this chemical is discontinued, the Forest Service steps up its use of 2, 4-D, firm in its belief that the use of herbicides is critical to its fuels management program.

In 1970, the Regional Office issues a 60 page brushland management plan which calls for extensive type conversion of chaparral and the heavy use of herbicides to accomplish this.  “This is a manual for the destruction of the flora of California,” one botanist comments.

As it turns out, use of herbicides in the Los Padres National Forest lasts only through the mid-1970s.  The 1960s environmentalist movement has exerted a strong influence on the nation.  In 1962, Rachel Carson writes Silent Spring, in which she postulates the dawn of an America in which there are no birds to sing, victims of pesticides such as DDT, a book that proves to be the watershed in the environmental movement.  People no longer trust that giant chemical manufacturers like Monsanto and Dow know what is best for us.  In 1969, the Santa Barbara Oil Spill further adds to this distrust of corporate America.

 

AFTER THE ROMERO Fire in 1972, the Forest Service continues its plans for herbicide use in the construction of fuelbreaks, this one along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains between Rincon Mountain near the Ventura County line and Carpinteria.  Application of the 2, 4-D will be at the rate of about three pounds per acre mixed with 10 gallons of an oil-water emulsion.

“These fuel breaks located on major ridges in the forest are essential in the control of large fires,” Robert Lancaster, who is now Supervisor of the Los Padres National Forest, tries to explain to doubters.  “The spray program is designed to maintain the low volume of fuel on the breaks which allows for men and equipment to gain better access and fight fires safely.”

Despite the fact that use of herbicides in the forest is reviewed by the Regional Forester in San Francisco and that they are registered for use all through the nation and are used strictly in accordance with manufacturers instructions, Lancaster does not convince local residents that they should be used.

“Strong questions on the use of chemicals for biological control have been voiced here following news stories about the consequences of using defoliants by the military in Vietnam,” Dick Smith writes in a News-Press story.

People’s Lobby, a Los Angeles-based environmental group, conducts a weekend protest against the use of defoliants on the Rincon Mountain fuelbreak, pointing out that though their use has been banned in Vietnam, the same herbicides are still being sprayed by the Forest Service.

Though use of 2, 4-D is carefully monitored and carried out under extremely rigid guidelines by Los Padres officials, by 1973 public pressure is causing them to cut back on its use.  By the mid-1970s the agency is looking for other means to deal with brush conversion.

The time is finally ripe for a close look at the use of fire as a tool in the ever-needed program of fuels management.

 

“WE ARE GOING TO have fires so we might as well have small ones that can be controlled,” Lancaster tells Representative Robert Lagomarsino, who he has invited to tour the forest and discuss a change in policy which will allow use of fire here.  In the nation’s capitol, it is still believed that all fires should be suppressed.

“It’s difficult to explain Southern California’s problems to people in Washington,” says assistant supervisor Don Renton, “where the general picture of the nation’s forests is one of high pine covered slopes.”

But with the support of Congressmen like Lagomarsino there is a gradual understanding in Washington that the management problems in the arid western states need to be approached from a different perspective.

The new policy has its origins in the National Park Service in the early 1960s after publication of the Leopold Report in 1963.  Prepared under the direction of A. Starker Leopold at UC Berkeley, it recommends that all national parks be restored as much as possible to their natural states and concludes that the careful use of fire was essential to achieving this goal.

After a half-century of fire suppression, all that has been accomplished, according to the report, is the creation of an artificial fire cycle resulting in an enormous buildup of dead fuel, high-intensity fires, and at a great cost.  We are only beginning to understand the economic and ecological costs of this policy, it concludes.

At first, the change is to a “let burn” policy under which lightning-caused fires will be allowed to burn in some cases.  The first national forest to gain approval for this policy is in Montana, where a fire in the 60,000-acre White Cap Wilderness is allowed to burn itself out in 1972.

Most foresters would rather see a policy of prescribed burning instituted, rather than a let burn policy.  “The good thing about a prescribed burn,” one ranger says, “is that the decision can be made rationally instead of waiting for nature.  She doesn’t always co-operate.”

In the Los Padres National Forest, the first prescribed burn is planned for a 900-acre tract near Santa Maria, in an area known as Miranda Pine, which is on the border of the land burned in the 1966 Wellman Fire.  During the week-long January, 1975 period that it is conducted, all goes well with the Buckhorn Burn, which it is called.

Several ranchers who are along to observe the burn smile.  They are happy, that the Forest Service has finally recognized the value of “getting back to nature.”   Fire has finally become an ally of Santa Barbara forest officials.

Though fuels management and fuelbreak construction are becoming a much larger part of the Forest Service fire program, there is a continued effort to upgrade suppression forces.

 

INCREASINGLY, A LARGE portion of Forest Service time is directed towards a chaparral research and development program, to give them the information that is needed to use prescribed burning techniques in the safest and most effective ways.  A scientific counterpart to the Riverside Fire Lab is created, called the Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station.  One of its publications is entitled Burning by Prescription in Chaparral  by Lisle Green, the culmination of a decade of intensive study on how to use fire to reduce fuel loading in the chaparral.

Prescribed burning as defined by the author is “the application of fire to wildland fuels in such conditions of weather, fuels, and topography that specific objectives are accomplished safely.”

A prescribed burn begins with the development of an Environmental Analysis, or EA.  Of first consideration is development of burn objectives, which generally are aimed at fuels reduction and improvement of wildlife habitat.  Devising a plan so that a given area will burn in the manner desired is not as easy as it might seem.

Usually what this means is using fire in a way that will create a vegetative mosaic, or pattern, rather than an area completely denuded of plant material.  Erosion is a consideration.  Visual quality must be taken into account if the burn will be in a recreational area.  Some wildlife need open space; others a combination of openings surrounded by islands of specific types of vegetation.  Near urban centers stringent air quality standards are a concern.

Once objectives are developed, an area map is prepared which shows boundaries and general topography, roads, location of water supplies, as well as location of problem areas or sensitive spots such as archaeological sites or endangered animal or plant species.

A description of the area, including a brief history, a review of flora and fauna, its underlying geologic features, and an over view of the plant communities which are within the burn zone are written next.

The approximate time and date of the burn are then estimated and a description of the ignition procedures is added.

How the fire is ignited is one of the most important features of a prescribed burn.  Use of a backfire might be chosen where it is desirable to burn into the direction of the wind, such as where the brush is thick or from the top of a slope that has usually has a wind blowing up it.

A flanking fire, which is ignited at right angles to the wind’s direction, is often used in conjunction with backfiring techniques in grassy areas or on slopes of low-growing brush.  First, a burn line is established across the top of the area, as then, as it begins to burn downhill, men drop down either flank and ignite them so that the fire burns towards a center point.

A headfire is one which burns with the direction of the wind.  It is potentially dangerous and used with great care because it will burn much faster and with a greater flame height and intensity, causing more damage to the plant communities because of this.  However, in brush either with a high moisture content or low fuel loading, a headfire may be needed to develop enough heat to sustain the fire.

Another technique which is used frequently is with a heli-torch, which is suspended under a helicopter.  A frame holding a 55-gallon drum filled with a substance called alumagel (a jellied aluminum-gasoline mixture something like napalm) is attached to the helicopter’s underbelly.  As the helicopter flies along, the mixture is pumped out of the drum and ignited, the globules falling to the ground, burning with a high intensity.

Also included in the EA are descriptions of the manpower and equipment which will be needed and the line of command authority to assure that qualified people will be available when needed and in charge of all aspects of the burn.

Last, a publicity plan is included, along with news releases, and, if needed, a time table for public input.

 

ABOUT 30 DAYS before the burn the Forest Service begins to monitor climatic conditions such as solar radiation, wind velocity, wind direction, temperature, and humidity.  This is when “Greta,” a solar powered weather station, is put out into the area, giving a daily record of the preceding month’s meteorological conditions, allowing the Forest Service to predict weather trends accurately and to tell them what the best hours are for burning, as well as the times when there is a potential for trouble.

Concurrently, the vegetation is sampled to determine both the live and dead fuel moisture and fuel loading, which is analyzed in tons per acre.  Then slope steepness, relative slope position to the sun, natural fire barriers which may occur in the area such as ridgelines or bulldozed fuelbreaks, and what type of access there is to the potential burn site are analyzed.

One of the most important considerations in determining whether the fuel will ignite is its moisture content.  The most accurate method of determining this is by gathering samples of material—both dead and live—in the burn area, weighing them, then drying them in an oven, and afterwards reweighing them to determine the net change.  But this is rather time consuming.

A faster method is through use of fuel sticks, a set of four 1/2 inch diameter ponderosa pine dowels which have a known weight of 100 grams.  After being placed in the burn area for several weeks, enough time to have reached an equilibrium, they are weighed again to determine what net change may have occurred.

What Forest Service experts are looking for is what might be called a “window.”  Too much moisture in the fuel sticks and the brush won’t burn; too little and they might not be able to keep it under control.  Experimentation has made it possible for this window to be quantified.  A moisture content between 6 and 15 per cent is ideal.

 

It is not just the dead fuel moisture that determines the propensity of an area for burning.  The percentage of moisture in the live fuels is critical as well.  In the chaparral, because fire spreads mainly through the crowns, where there is some dead material and a large amount of live greenery, the water content of these twigs often will determine how a fire will burn, or if it will burn at all.

“Moisture content of living fuel is so high that it will not burn unless it is subjected to continuous heat,” says Lisle Green.  “If a hot fire is to develop and move through the brushfield, heat released from burning dead fuel must dry out the live fuel until the small green twigs ignite.

“Moisture in live fuels act as a heat sink for energy from burning dry fuels.  The greater the live fuel moisture content, the more dry fuel must be consumed before the green will burn.”

It is this factor which makes winter burning difficult.  Once the moisture reaches its peak during the rainy season there is a fairly even decline in live moisture from spring through fall months, with the moisture level not falling below the 75 per cent mark until May in average years.  Minimum moisture levels are usually reached between September and early November, though santa ana winds can suck it out in a matter of hours in any of the summer months.

Experience has shown that as the moisture content rises above 75 per cent, the brush becomes harder and harder to burn, which means that except for in unusually dry winters or during periods of prolonged drought in January, February, and March, it is difficult to initiate a prescribed burn then.  Above 85 to 90 per cent moisture content and it is almost impossible.

 

Another factor which must be taken into account is the ratio of dead-to-live fuel. Brush that is 20 years old is generally composed of about 20 per cent dead material.  As it approaches 25 years in age the proportion of dead material begins to increase dramatically, and by age 30 the chaparral is often made up of 35 per cent or more dead material.  By 50 years of age, the brush may be more dead than alive.

Records from front country fires occurring during the past century tell us that big fires break out in the forest when the chaparral exceeds 29 years in age or the dead fuels reach the 30 per cent level.

 

Despite the fact that the Forest Service has now begun to use fire to manage the chaparral, it actually turns out that doing it in a prescribed manner in the winter months isn’t that easy at all.  In some years the Santa Barbara Ranger District is lucky to get in a half-dozen burn days, either because the prescriptions aren’t right, or because the brush is too moist to get it burning.  But at least it is being done.

By the 1980s this practice will constitute a major part of the Forest Service efforts at prevention of huge and costly wildfires.

Though the Forest Service is doing everything possible to reduce fuel loading through prescribed burning techniques, and despite the development of sophisticated equipment and the creation of an efficient and well coordinated mutual aid command structure, when the Sycamore Fire starts, firefighters are relatively helpless.

The danger is now as much from the encroachment of the urban interface into the brushlands as it is the fuel loading itself.  There is no buffer between the chaparral fuel and the homes anymore.

 

THE SYCAMORE FIRE IS both ferocious and sudden.  On Tuesday afternoon, July 26 it is an extremely hot 92 degrees, as it has been for the previous several days.  Because of a prolonged drought, which has occurred throughout the mid-1970s, and hot temperatures throughout July, both fire departments and the News-Press are focusing on making people aware of the fire danger.

The week before, the newspaper has run an article describing the danger and letting the public know how to prevent a fire from starting.  County, City, and Montecito Fire Departments hold joint training exercises to fine tune their readiness.  On the 26th, a Red Flag Alert is posted at 4:30 pm and trucks from the various agencies begin patrols of the hazardous foothill areas.

“Right now we are experiencing high winds,” County Fire Inspector Tony Scurria is quoted as saying in the evening edition of the News-Press, which comes out on the day of the fire.  “With the hot weather and the winds, the moisture is being sucked out of the brush.  The fire danger is escalating every day.  We’re getting into prime condition for a big fire.  Two weeks ago, something that would have been a small spot fire now has the potential for being a major blaze.”

But it is impossible for anyone to envision what the Sycamore Fire will be like once it begins.  “Don’t call it a brush fire,” says County Fire Marshall Don Oaks, “It was a wood-roof conflagration, not really a brush fire.  That’s why it spread so fast.  The wood roofs in the area contributed to the fire’s intensity and made it the disaster it was.  It would have been a smaller fire if the wood roofs had not been involved.

“The embers of burning shakes from one roof would land on another wood roof, and that roof in turn would ignite.  Then the hot, fierce winds blowing from the mountains would carry more embers to a third roof and ignite it.  I saw burning wood shakes literally lifted off roofs and carried considerable distances to other roofs and brush areas.”

 

On April 26, 1977, exactly three months before the Sycamore Fire, a small article appears in the News-Press.  “Kite flying can be a dangerous sport for adults as well as children,” it says.  “Southern California Edison warns kite enthusiasts to avoid flying a kite with a metal frame or tail or with a wet string in stormy weather.  Kites should also not be flown over power lines….”  It doesn’t receive much attention.

 

About 7 pm on July 26, Scott Sheldon, who is a  23-year-old carpenter, and his girlfriend decide to spend the remaining part of the evening flying his four-foot box kite, which is constructed out of balsa wood and paper.  They walk along Coyote Drive looking for a favorable breeze.  Turning east on Mountain Drive they find a place to their liking, about a quarter mile from the Coyote Road intersection.

At first the breeze isn’t stiff enough, and they have trouble getting the kite airborne, but after a few minutes a warm sundowner begins to develop and, as the breeze slices down across the mountainside from La Cumbre Peak, the kite is finally pushed high into the air.  But within 10 minutes the wind is howling, gusting to 25 miles per hour, and a sharp burst rips the spool of string out of Scott’s hands.  The kite takes off downhill toward the ocean, carrying the spool with it to a point where it becomes entangled in a set of telephone lines, which are directly below even larger power lines.

The force of the wind continues to drive the kite forward and the string, which is caught in the telephone line, begins to press against the Edison line overhead, causing the 16,000-volt power line to arc with an adjacent line, showering the brush with sparks.  At 7:27 pm the fire starts, beginning what will become seven terrifying hours of hell.

 

Stan Hill is an optometrist who that evening is at home restoring a vintage airplane in his Mountain Drive workshop.  Suddenly there is a loud “zap” followed by a sudden loss in power.  Rushing outside, he spies the large yellow box kite trapped in the high-tension wires, its loose string binding two of the wires together.  Beneath the kite he can see a barefoot young man trying vainly to put out the fire with a shovel.  Quickly he races inside to report the fire.

 

This first call is logged into the Montecito Fire Department dispatch at 7:38 pm, which responds by sending Engine 2 from the Sycamore Canyon Station within three minutes.  It arrives at the fire scene at 7:46 pm.  Montecito Fire Chief Charles Graham is at home when the fire starts, just about to leave for a patrol of the eastern section of his territory and he responds immediately.  County Fire Chief William Patterson, a former Long Beach fireman, who has been in charge of the County firefighting forces only since the previous December, is on his way home, and is monitoring fire calls.  Upon hearing of the fire he immediately turns around and heads towards Coyote Drive.  City Fire Chief Richard Peterson is working on his new home when it starts.  When he receives a call about the fire on his direct line from the city’s headquarters he, too, responds.

Quickly, a command post is set up at Westmont College where the three men begin to make critical decisions about fire strategy.  Their first decision is to appoint County Fire Chief Patterson as fire boss.  Shortly thereafter they are joined by Denny Bungarz, Santa Barbara District Ranger for the Forest Service, who will help direct the air strike.

The preparation in the preceeding weeks has paid off.  The coordinated command structure with Patterson at the head works smoothly.  But the fierce winds begin to push the fire down into Sycamore Canyon and the hillsides full of tinder-dry brush and grass allow it to spread quickly.  Further, there aren’t enough firemen during this initial stage to give any hope of stopping the blaze.  By the time the mutual aid forces from outside the South Coast area have assembled on the fire line, most of the damage has been done.

“It wasn’t a fair fight,” Peterson points out afterwards.  “The real problems were the damn winds and weather conditions—we just couldn’t assemble our resources quickly enough, and never did until the wind quit.”

Peterson, especially has a tough decision to make as the fire begins to burn inside city limits.  If he is to have any chance of success he will have to put all of his city forces out on the fire.  “We had some spooky moments because we committed every single engine in the city for an hour and a half, which is not something we normally do,” he recalls.  “But I made the decision that we had such a major problem that we knew about that it was crazy to keep something for a potential problem.”

Fortunately no other fires occur in the city during this period, and the crisis there eases shortly after 9 pm when Ventura County fireman take up positions at the city stations.

 

At 7:50 pm, as sunset nears, a second truck arrives on Mountain Drive.  Working with Engine 2, this crew immediately begins to douse the area with water.  The fire seems stubborn but controllable.  At 8:22 the first aerial tanker drops a load of fire retardant.  The fire has covered several acres, not a particularly rapid rate of spread thus far, but the wind is growing hotter and more intense.  Within minutes the air in front of the flames becomes super heated, creating a rapidly moving firestorm filled with a high intensity combination of fuel and oxygen.  At 8:46 pm, when the air power is grounded due to darkness, the 250 firefighters which are on the scene are overmatched.

Quickly the word goes out—the fire is making a run at the nearest houses from where the fire has begun, between Coyote and Banana Roads.  At 8:48 pm a call can be heard over the radio, the first of many such calls, “Truck 15 needs help—needs help now!”

One County Fireman, Keith Cullom, who is at the intersection of Coyote and Banana Roads when the firestorm begins to develop says, “I’ve never seen a fire move as quickly.  It was moving horizontally across the ground, like a wind-whipped carpet of incandescent coals and burning embers, blowing down the hillside.”  Quickly, this blanket becomes a sea of flames, spreading in several directions—one front heading into the foothills on the east side of Sycamore Canyon, another down into the canyon itself, still another towards Stanwood Drive and the Riviera.

At 8:55 a report is confirmed that the first house near Banana Road is on fire.  At 9 pm the wind becomes exceptionally severe and the fire begins to spew out thousands more flaming embers which envelop even more houses.  The front moves through houses on Chelam Way, burning eight of these, then crosses Sycamore Canyon Road and the oak woodland covering on the west side of Barker Pass Road turns into a cauldron of flames.  By 9:20 the flames begin to ignite homes on Sierra Vista Road.  Twenty homes burn there, second largest total for any one street.  At 9:27 the flames advance down Barker Pass Road.  By this time homes are burning everywhere throughout Sycamore Canyon.

Harry Peyton lives with his wife at 555 Sycamore Vista Road when the fire begins.  He is a grizzled veteran of war.  On December 7, 1941 he is there when Japanese bombers move into Pearl Harbor, turning it into a flaming ruin.  They have lived in Santa Barbara since 1955.  “We found as we were staying in other places, this is where we wanted to be.”

Peyton and his wife decide to stay with their home as the fire begins to approach, determined not to let this enemy destroy it.  “In the past people who have stayed with their houses and fought the fires have generally succeeded,” he remembers thinking.  “We decided to try.”

But when the firestorm begins its savage rush at them, they abandon the house.  Staying alive becomes their only priority.  “We retreated to the downwind side of the house,” he recalls vividly ten years after the fire.  “I’d estimate the wind was blowing 70 or 80 mph and the heat was incredible.  There was a patch of green tomatoes and they just exploded.

“We ended up rolling in the dirt, getting as low as we could, and the fire burned right over us.”  He pauses as he tells his story to News-Press writer Woody Behrens, showing him the scars which he still has on his arms.  “We just sat there and covered up.”  The couple are forced to remain in this position until the flames in the brush around them subside.  They finally emerge from the canyon after midnight stunned, in shock, and seriously burned, though still alive.

What Peyton remembers most is the pain.  “Somehow or another nature lets you forget much of it,” he says.  “But I’ll always remember the treatment for the burns.  There’s no pain quite like it.”

 

At the time of the fire Jim McCloskey is at his home at 75 Canon View Road.  “I could hear the wine bottles popping inside—the whole house was burning,” he says of the moment when the fire turned on his house.  He has sent his wife and three children away earlier but has stayed, vowing to protect their home for as long as possible.  But as he scrambles up onto the roof he loses his footing on the wet shakes and tumbling off, he breaks his ankle.

“It was damned hot and the air was getting thin,” he recalls.  “There was fire everywhere.  It didn’t look like there was a way out.”

But as the fire began to burn through the house he knows he has no choice but to flee, despite the injury.  “I took a deep breath,” he says, “and I ran for it,” hopping along gingerly.  “I decided to run into the wind, where the fire had already burned.  I kind of felt like it was my only chance at getting out.”  He is right.

“I lost my footing near the bottom of the hill and went down spread-eagle.  It took all the hide off my hands and I lost my glasses.  I found my glasses about two inches from my nose, but then I looked back up the hill and all saw all this stuff blowing down at me.

“I just squished up as narrow as I could get and lay there with my feet pointing up the hill, hoping I wouldn’t get hit.”  Luckily he doesn’t, and after the burning embers and hot charcoal have passed him by, he gets up and continues to scramble on.

“At a house down the street, a woman and her son were arguing over whether to stay and fight the flames or leave their home and flee,” McCloskey continues.  “She looked at me and that was the end of it.

“We got in his jeep and took off and boy, that was one wild ride….we were all over the curbs and sidewalks [but] finally he got me to St. Francis.”

 

On the night of the 26th Lee Wardlaw is watching television at Cal Poly SLO, where she is a senior.  Her first inkling of the tragedy comes when a news announcer breaks in to tell viewers about a fire which is burning in the Sycamore Canyon area.  “I immediately became alert,” she says in looking back.  “I called my mom and she reassured me that everything was all right.  This was about 8 pm.”  But two hours later she receives a return call telling her that both her grandmother’s house and theirs are gone.  A few scanty details are related to her.

“A fireball had leaped across the canyon and ignited the eucalyptus trees above us.  The house above us exploded, and some of the burning pieces had landed on our roof and in our yard,” her mom tells her on the phone.

“Everything happened so suddenly, my mom said, that all she and my brother John had time to do was dash in our house and try to rescue our two cats.  Johnny grabbed one and his pet rat, and my mother grabbed the other but it was so terrified, it broke away and ran back into the house.”

Because she has no transportation, Lee remains close to the television, anxious for any news.  “I couldn’t get through [anymore] on the telephone.  The lines were jammed or burned.  And there was very little news in the San Luis area about the fire.  I would have hopped in my car and driven down, but it was in the shop for repairs.  I was frantic, because I had no idea what was going on.”

At 6 am the following day her father is able to get through to Lee Wardlaw.  He confirms that their houses are gone.  “I still couldn’t comprehend what had actually happened,” she remembers.  “Since I hadn’t actually seen it I couldn’t really believe it—the house where I grew up, the entire neighborhood—all gone.  In a daze, I went to my classes.”

 

“There were tough decisions that had to be made about which houses could be saved and where to use our water,” Captain Sam Dumas, a 10-year veteran of the City Fire Department, relates later.  Because there are so many houses on fire and because of insufficient water pressure, only those houses with a clear chance of being saved get the attention of firefighters.

“Houses were going left and right,” says Dumas.  “At one point we were down to 250 gallons of water.  A house we wanted to save was just too involved.  We had to let it burn.

“We refilled our tank, then went to the call of a man trapped by the fire on Sycamore Canyon Road.  The man was on the roof with a hose and his house was burning.  We told him to come down, but he was reluctant.  He wanted to save his home.”  Finally, the firemen are able to talk him down and Dumas enters the house with his hose shooting water out over the flames.  Almost immediately the roof of the house caves in, almost trapping Dumas.

“We really ate it in there!” he says.  “The heat and the smoke was intense.”  The pattern becomes a familiar one.  The crew moves down 300 yards to where another house has the potential of being saved, but it, too, is lost when the water runs out.  They move over to Las Alturas Circle and with the help of another pumper crew, lay 1,200 feet of hose, only to discover that there wasn’t enough pressure coming from the hydrant to do them any good.

“We had zero pressure at the very top,” Chief Peterson recalls.  “In some cases there was a vacuum and all the hose did was suck in air.”  Part of this is due to outdated water mains, which are too small, and to the high number of garden hoses which are in use.  In some cases, homeowners simply drop their hoses and flee when the flames get too close, leaving them running, the water going wastefully onto the ground, thus helping to reduce the water pressure even further.

Dumas and the second crew work together in a “tag team” fashion, with one pumper hosing down a house until the other can return to take its place.  In this way they are able to save several houses, though many more burn.

At 10:05 the first of a series of power failures begin to occur, making water shortages even more severe when many of the electrical pumps that move water up to foothill storage tanks go out of operation.

From the city, power transformers can be seen exploding in white flashes, as trees and homes go up in flames around telephone poles.  It is an eerie sight.  The entire mouth of Sycamore Canyon filled with an orange-yellow glow, and the white flashes seem like a blitzkrieg, with Santa Barbara in the midst of a World War II bombing raid.  Fire trucks, their lights flashing red in the night sky, can be seen rushing back and forth through the foothills from one hot spot to another

When a desperate stand by a valiant group of firefighters near Stanwood Drive fails, the front moves into the Riviera and begins to threaten homes along Las Alturas Drive.  The fire now burns over a broad front, stretching from the Riviera across Sycamore Canyon to the east of Barker Pass Road, the flames advancing rapidly down towards the lower Eastside.

“Oh, God, what a night,” Wes Gallagher, a former Associated Press bureau chief, thinks as he watches its progress through binoculars from his home.  “You could see the fire leap a quarter of a mile at a time,” he says.  “Having watched refugees from Germany to Vietnam, I never thought I would be one myself, and it is a singularly unpleasant experience.”

 

At 10:20 pm an anguished plea is heard over a fire department radio.  “Give us some help down here!” is the cry.  Then a more ominous note, “Engine Number 4 is trapped on Sycamore Vista.”

There are three men on the crew—Dave Stanley, Danny Paulin, and Captain Jim Endersby.  They are in the driveway of a private home, trying to protect three houses on Sycamore Vista.  As the firestorm approaches them, it begins to suck the oxygen out of the air, causing the engine on their pumper to die, cutting off the supply of water which might have saved their lives.  There are flaming eucalyptus all around them.  Realizing that they couldn’t get out, and that no one would be able to bail them out, one of the crew radios out the last desperate message, then each of them grabs a small package out of their emergency kit called a “pup tent.”

In actuality, the pup tent is a small silverized metallic blanket which, when put over a person, takes the shape of a tent and reflects the killing radiant heat away, as well as helping to trap enough oxygen beneath it to last for about five minutes.

“We lay with our feet facing toward where the flames were coming from,” one of the men says later, “and stayed in the fire tents off and on for a half an hour.  They definitely saved our lives.”

Meanwhile several other trucks rush to their rescue, including one pumper which begins to spray the area with water.  “We started out trying to help the men,” Sam Dumas says, “but none of us could see the trapped firemen.  Then suddenly Dave Stanley and the others walked out of the smoke.  They were visibly shaken.”  After being taken to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation, they are released, thankful for the invention of these $10 space age devices.

“They had just completed training in them the day before,” Chief Peterson notes.

 

Edward Murphy, a deputy Public Defender, finds himself in almost exactly the same position, only he has no pup tent to save him or his wife, Becky.  At first he chooses to stay at his house to save it, but as he watches the fire draw closer he becomes more apprehensive.  Finally, when the eucalyptus tress and heavy brush behind his house explode with a large crackling sound, he began to retreat towards his car.  “All of a sudden,” he says, “the sky filled with flame and blazing embers.  We didn’t even know if we could get out.”

But when they reach the car and Murphy turns the ignition the engine cranks over endlessly, the fire having consumed enough oxygen to keep it from starting.  But just as the flames reach the edge of the driveway the car starts and they are able to escape.

 

At the Five Points intersection—the somewhat awkward point of convergence for Alameda Padre Serra, Sycamore Canyon, Eucalyptus Hill, Salinas, and Montecito roads—the scene is one of what News-Press writer Dave Hardy describes as “chaos, frustration and heartbreak.”

City officer James Caraway is there waging his own solitary battle, trying to contain the hundreds of people want to drive up to their endangered homes.  “Park it and walk,” he shouts over and over, “Park it and walk.”  While he won’t let any of the cars through, people are free to wander up into the fire zone to their homes.  Nor do police have any authority to remove those who choose to remain with their homes.

“When people are advised full well of the danger, you have to let them stay,” Fire Chief Peterson responds after the fire to a question about this policy.  “If they choose to ignore warnings, there’s not a whole lot you can do.  I certainly wouldn’t advocate staying, but some people did, in fact, save their houses this way.”

To protect against looting, police have been authorized to shoot anyone who is witnessed committing such a crime.  Finally, because of the chaos, though no one is forced to leave their homes, policemen begin to turn away those who want to enter the fire area.

 

For Joan Crowder, it is the longest night of her life.  As a News-Press staff writer she is covering a play in Solvang and is on her way home when she notices the glow in the sky.  Continuing down from San Marcos Pass, it looks to her like the whole town is on fire.  Then comes the sudden realization that the fire is burning in the vicinity of her house.  “My God!” she says to a friend who is with her, “it’s up by my house!”

As her stomach turns somersaults, Joan drives frantically towards Sycamore Canyon Road.  When she jumps out of her car at the Five Points intersection she yells at the policeman who is at the barricade, “I live up there–I don’t know if my children are all right.  I have to get up there!”

“No one can go up there,” he says to her impassively, “There’s no way.”

“How about my press pass?” Ms. Crowder replies.

“No way, lady,” he says.

Numbly, she drives down to the Milpas area to see if she can locate her children.  Because Joan has recently separated from her husband, she tries him first, and his thankful when he tells her that they are with him.

“I went up when the fire first started and got the dog and the cats too,” he adds,  “but I had to leave the parrot because the cage wouldn’t fit in my car.”  He has stayed at the house as long as possible, watering the house and the yard and the carport, but when the fire comes roaring down the canyon near her house he decides it is time to evacuate.

Joan has only had the house for a few months.  The separation, and the trauma of moving out of the home that she and her husband have shared for many years has been severe.  Losing her new home just seems like too much to bear.  “I had only taken with me the things gleaned carefully from many years of marriage,” Joan remembers, “only the things I really liked.”

The house she has moved into is actually her second choice.  The one she really wanted is across the canyon, but also out of her price range.  Though it has been her second choice, the house is still very important to her.  Trying every approach, Joan drives through Montecito trying to find a route into her neighborhood.  She tries five different roads—each is a dead end.  Each with a policeman in front of the roadblock.  Each positive—no one is allowed into the area.

Finally, out of desperation, Joan Crowder heads to the News-Press offices, which are extremely crowded with reporters putting together fire stories for the next day’s paper.  “From the windows the Riviera was an incredible sight,” Joan writes later in her own fire story.  “I could see each house ignite and the flames roar out of control and on to the next.  The fire was moving towards town.  There was nothing I could do.”

Someone suggests that perhaps she can get it out of her mind if she writes her play review.

“What play?” she responds.

 

At 12:02 am, just four-and-a-half hours after the kite has arced on the power line, homes begin to burn along Alameda Padre Serra, just five blocks above Milpas Street.  At 12:03 homes are burning on both sides of this road, and in minutes, 27 houses along this strip have been destroyed.

By 12:30 am, it has burned down to the intersection of APS and Cota and it appears as if the city itself is in danger.

Then at 12:41 am the first good news is circulated—a cool layer of marine air is beginning to move onshore.  From across the city near the KEYT television studio, where many people, including myself, have been watching the fire’s progress, cheers begin as people feel the air move through the crowd.

Still, the houses burn.  At 12:42 am, a voice shouts over the radio from the intersection of Las Alturas and Mission Ridge Roads, “It’s coming over us!”

Finally, at 2:38 am, the marine wind felt at TV hill finally prevails on the fire line, causing the Sycamore Fire to reverse its direction and burn back towards Coyote and Mountain roads, where it has begun.  At 3 am, a few houses are still reported burning, but the worst is over.  By dawn, as residents begin to venture back into the devastated hills behind Santa Barbara, all that remains of the fire are a few wisps of smoke that drift skyward from what were 195 precious homes just a half-day ago.

In terms of acreage, it isn’t a large fire, but in the space of just seven hours it has wrecked an incredible amount of damage—$24 to $26 million dollars—making it the fifth worst fire in California history.  It has also caused an untold amount of emotional terror.

 

AT 4:30 AM, WHEN Joan Crowder drives out East Valley Road for another try at getting in to her home, she turns back despondently when confronted by more smoke and the fire, which now is burning back into the mountains.

“The glow in the sky over my neighborhood seemed to grow brighter.  I had almost lost hope,” she says.  “I went back to the house where my family was and lay down on the couch.  The dog licked my face.  I think I slept for about an hour.  When I woke up it was almost light.

“I jumped up, washed my face, and headed for the roadblock.”  This time she is allowed through, but on foot, it is still about a two mile walk.  “As I began trudging up the hill,” Joan continues, “I saw a familiar figure coming down.  It was my neighbor.  His eyes were red, but as he saw me he smiled.”

Softly, he said, “My house and your house are still there.”

But when she reaches her house, Joan realizes there is no way she could be prepared for what she sees.  “For a moment, I forgot my own joy, and my heart broke for those who had lived in the beautiful homes that were now ghostly, smoking ruins.  By the time I got to my own road, I was crying so hard….The canyons on either side of the road, which had been so lush and green, and had been my reason for wanting to live there, were smoking, black and gray.  What had been trees were black sticks.  As I approached my house, our little settlement looked like a strange oasis on the surface of the moon.”

Through the pain there is some solace.  “The parrot was fine.”  And as she looks across the blackened, smouldering canyon towards the house that she really wanted to buy so badly, it isn’t there anymore.

 

The toll of the seven hour fire is awesome.  Twenty houses on Sierra Vista.  Forty-four on Las Alturas.  On Chelam Way not much is left: 800 gone; 812 gone; 822 gone; 826, 840, 856, 906, 918—all gone.  Though 910 survives, next door at 918 all that is left is just a number on a mailbox.

“It’s a funny feeling standing in the doorway and looking where the knob was supposed to be,” says one resident.

Gallingly, President Jimmy Carter turns down emergency federal aid for the homeowners.  The feeling in Washington is that rich Montecito people can help themselves.  One Washington DC newspaper is quoted as saying, “The wealthy people just got on their yachts and sat out in the ocean and drank martinis and watched their homes burn on the hills.”

But James Norris, a Santa Barbara insurance agent disputes this.  “There is no truth to the rumor that only wealthy people lost their homes,” he says.  “Fifty-eight per cent of the people who lost their homes had an average income of less than $30,000,” he adds.  “Only 6 per cent of them had incomes of more than $50,000.  Worse, most of these people were way underinsured.  It was a period of inflation and the values were going up much faster than people realized.”

Homeowners are faced not only with the loss of their homes but in the future months will face difficult obstacles to rebuilding them.  “The rebuilding of inner strength comes first,” Dick Wilson writes in a News-Press article, “and with that accomplished, the people who lost all they owned in this devastating fire can think about rebuilding their homes.”  The community, friends, and family pull together after the fire and the healing process begins.

Eventually, more than 70 per cent of the 195 homeowners do rebuild.

 

Lee Wardlaw is not able to return from Cal Poly for two days , but when he does the sight is etched vividly in her mind—”No people, no cars, no birds.  Nothing but silence.”

“I felt like Dorothy in the movie, ‘The Wizard of Oz’—only in reverse,” she says to News-Press writer Marilyn McMahon a number of years after the fire.  “Remember how the movie began in black and white and then when Dorothy entered the Land of Oz, it changed to color?

“For me it was just the opposite.  Everything was beautiful and sunny until I drove around the bend in Sycamore Canyon Road and saw the fire scene.  Suddenly, the scene became black and white.

“It looked like pictures I had seen of Germany after World War II.  Our house was a pile of rubble.  The dishwasher was totally blackened, but the dishes inside were fine.  Twisted metal was hot 48 hours later.  So this was what a house looks like when it burns to the ground, I thought numbly.”

 

For Harry Peyton, the transition from the horrors of losing his home, and almost his life, to thinking about rebuilding a future for he and his wife out of the ashes is difficult, though not insurmountable.  This is where they want to live and they will build again.  Life, however, will never be the same.  “Our outlook was always that you buy something of good quality and it lasts forever,” he muses.  “We found out there is no forever.”

 

What Jim McCloskey pictures in his mind when he thinks about the Sycamore Fire is not the spectacular fire scenes, but having to go back up and face what he had lost.  “It’s a little defeating,” he says, “It’s a lot defeating.”

But with the losses have come small rewards.  One of those is the small cat which he has tried unsuccessfully to gather in his arms to take along with him when he flees.

“One thing I’ll always remember is the look on my son’s face when we went back up a couple of days after the fire and saw the cat still alive,” he says.  “She was a little bit singed and all four paws were burned, but she made it.”

Though he and his wife have thought quite a bit about selling the property and moving into a safer area, “When we rebuilt, it was like there was never any doubt.  And now that we’ve got enough sweat and toil into it, we wouldn’t live anywhere else in town.”

Most of all, what the fire has done is bring he and his wife together even more.  “Before the fire, there was ‘hers’ and there was ‘mine,’” he says.  “Losing everything like that, well, now it’s just ‘ours.’”

 

“The hardest part of dealing with the fire’s destruction,” says Payne Green, who is a patrolman with the Santa Barbara Police Department, “wasn’t the sense of loss, but the feeling of uncertainty.  When you have a wife and two kids, and no place to live…it’s terrible.”  They are forced to move seven times before eventually being able to move into a trailer on the property where their house burned.

They are bitter, too, because of the widespread belief outside of Santa Barbara that only people who were wealthy lost homes.  “We heard the stories–they were all over,” says Mrs. Green.  “They said that all the wealthy people from Montecito watched the fire burn from their yachts.  It was crazy.”

For the Greens the healing is a ten year process.  “Ten years,” Payne Green says, looking out from the deck of his home to a hillside which is once again, full of life, “Ten years.  Yeah, now we can laugh.”

 

 

FOR SCOTT CARPENTER, whose kite has caused the Sycamore Fire, the fire will always be engraved deeply  into his mind.

At first, both the District Attorney’s senior criminal investigator, Thomas Hunt, and Forest Service arson investigator, Bill Waltrip, are convinced that the fire has been deliberately set.  But they are not so sure when they return to the fire’s starting point the next morning and notice the kite string and spool on the Edison wires.

By 9 am, Hunt has put together enough information to identify the kite’s owner and calls him at his home.  During the conversation, Hunt advises the young man of his rights.  Carpenter, in turn, agrees to come in voluntarily with his attorney for questioning.

The questions are pointed and extensive, lasting for two-and-a-half hours, and include a lie detector test.  That evening District Attorney Stan Roden, convinced by the evidence at the fire scene, the lie detector test, and lack of any evidence showing inconsistencies in Carpenter’s story, concludes that the fire has been an accidental and tragic mistake.

“Investigation has shown that a kite flown by me became detached and came into contact with high tension wires,” the young man notes in a public apology which is released through DA Roden’s office.  “Somehow this contact resulted in the ignition of dry weeds and brush beneath the weeds.

“I am deeply shocked and saddened by the great loss and suffering which has resulted from the fire.  I shall also always regret the part, however innocent, I have had in this tragic matter.”

But that does not stop Scott from receiving death threats and other nasty phone calls.  Eventually—on the advice of authorities—he is forced to flee town.

 

On August 16, 1982, Judge Donald Boden dismisses a Superior Court civil suit brought by 150 property owners and insurance companies against Southern California Edison, the owner of the power line that has sparked the fire, ruling that there is insufficient evidence to prove that poorly designed equipment or negligence on the part of Edison have been major factors in the destruction of the 195 homes lost in the Sycamore Fire.

 

IN 1983 LEE WARDLAW marries Craig Jaffurs, a cost analyst for Tecolote Research in Goleta.  Time, and this stabilizing relationship help her to put the fire experiences to work in writing of a book called Corey’s Fire, which is published in 1987.

“Ever since I attended the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference in 1979, I wanted to write a book about a teenager dealing with the loss of a home in a fire,” he tells Marilyn McMahon.  “After the Sycamore Fire everyone was interviewing adults and asking them about their feelings, but no one was paying attention to the children.  They suffered, too.  My younger brother, John, couldn’t eat breakfast for a year after the fire.”

The story is about a 14-year-old girl named Corey, who is somewhat immature and dependent on her friends, family, and her home for security.  “When her home is destroyed, she learns how to become an independent young woman,” says Lee Wardlaw Jaffurs.  “It’s a coming of age.  From the trauma of the fire comes something positive.”

The story also revolves around the family’s recovery from the emotional scars of the fire.  “Emotion plays a strong role,” she adds.  “like the best friend whose house didn’t burn down.  There’s resentment toward her, and she feels guilty because her house was unscathed.  These are things I remember.”

 

Ironically, despite the turmoil that the Sycamore Fire has caused in her own life, the Jaffurs have chosen wooded acreage in the Santa Barbara foothills, a high fire danger area, for their own home.  Shrugging Lee says, “I figure my chances of having another home burn down are slim but just in case, we keep our fire insurance very high.”


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