The Fire That Stole Christmas
We only had a little over an hour with Montecito Fire chief Chip Hickman, as he had to escort some of the people who’d lost their homes back to their property, but we made the most of our time. No Montecito firefighters were lost or even hurt throughout the ordeal. There was one death, that of Cory Iverson from Escondido, and another firefighter fell from the top of a truck and broke some ribs; neither were from Montecito.
We made it to the top of Park Hill Lane, where two homes at the edge of Montecito’s back country were lost; one house at the end of the roadway was still smoldering and a fire “strike team” was onsite managing the smoke and embers. Chief Hickman explained that these particular homes at the end of a one-way road and positioned right up against the back country were, unfortunately, “too close to the fire to defend,” though fire crews tried to protect them until proximity to the flames became too dangerous.
Although he wasn’t there, the chief surmises that the firefighters who were here must have been asked to “stand down” and to retreat to the safety zone in the 700 block of Park Lane. “[Park Hill Lane] is a one-way road,” he says, “and all it would take is one mishap and everybody behind them would be completely trapped.”
He did say that even though firefighters had to retreat, “they would probably have prepped this structure as well as they could.” The evidence of that “prepping” was evident, as what had been a handsome and elegant home was completely gutted, but the adjacent three-car garage and a guest quarter above it survived intact. Inside the garage was an array of furniture, china, books, and personal items in boxes. Chief Hickman says “it wouldn’t surprise me at all that the firefighters helped the homeowners to put all this stuff here” a day or two before the fire consumed the residence.
When asked why the garage and its contents survived the fire, Chip explains that “Garages have two-hour firewalls. And so, if [the house] catches on fire and [the garage] does not, there’s a chance we can defend [the garage], because we’ve got a two-hour firewall between the house and the garage.”
Another reason Montecito had such success fighting the Thomas Fire was the decade-old Hazard Mitigation Network. “A lot of resources and money went into the hazard mitigation network in our front country over the past ten years,” the chief points out. “We’ve been able to connect from one end of our district to the other. When you drive the high roads – Bella Vista, Park Lane, Mountain Drive – you wouldn’t really notice, but it’s all mosaic. There is no continuity. When you look up there it looks fine, but you can walk right through it for about a hundred feet.”
That network now extends across the entire front country. Even more impressively, it was all done on private land by making arrangements with each individual homeowner.
Saturday Morning Barrage
How close were we to a major disaster?
“The fire moved a quarter mile or so down to Park Lane and Mountain Drive [on Saturday morning, December 16], then spotted out and created fires up against East Valley Road,” Hickman says. “It was just bombarding that whole area between Mountain Drive and East Valley Road. We had fire all inside that area. We got carpet-bombed. The upside,” he says, “was that when it happened, it was right in the middle of a shift change, so we had three hundred engines in here getting off and another three hundred coming in. We had quite the armada.” Because of the overwhelming firepower available, fire crews were able to go house to house as hot spots developed.
All the gated residences in Montecito are required to have what are called “Knox boxes,” which firefighters can access via a master key. They are also supposed to have an auxiliary power source (battery-operated) in case electricity is lost. “In advance of the fire, the fire department went around with five or six people with Knox keys and opened every gate. It took like two days,” Hickman relates. Montecito firefighters visited each home to make sure gates were open. Now that the threat is (almost) past, firefighters have to re-lock each gate before reopening the zones designated as mandatory evacuation areas.
The Thomas Fire Status
“The fire is now on the other side of the hill,” Hickman explains. “They’re doing a big burn operation from – if you’re familiar with the Sespe Gorge – from Protrero Seco to Camino Cielo; it’s a huge distance, and they’re going to try to tie it in with these burn scars we have in the back country, so they’ll tie it into the Tea Fire, Jesusita, and then circle around to the Zaca Fire, the Rey Fire, and it’s going to have to get bumped into all of those.”
Is he pleased with the firefighting effort? “Heck, yes,” Hickman says. “We’re talking about an area that hasn’t burned for sixty-five years. Absolutely. We’re not going to have to worry too much about a wildland fire threat for some years now. We’re going to have, however, a huge [potential flooding] problem. Jameson Lake lost all of its buildings and that’s our reservoir, and all this silt is going to go in there and fill it. That’s going to be a real issue.”
When asked about the source of water used to refill the more than 600 fire trucks working in Montecito, Chip says, “Since the Tea Fire, Montecito Water has done a tremendous job in upgrading all of our pump stations, putting backup power to those stations, improving infrastructure in the pipes so that they can handle and maintain a pressure for us to fill all these engines with. So, that’s where we’re getting all our water from.”
When the smoke was so dense it was impossible to see where the fire actually was, FLIR system infrared devices on drones (launched and controlled from Pt. Mugu) were able to identify the hot spots. Chipman says they were able to use “military grade” equipment for fire and smoke detection.
Hickman feels the pain even if just one house is lost, so 10 is a big number, but he notes that “The magnitude and the enormity of the fire front that we had coming, it was obvious that we were probably not going to go unscathed.”
He says, the fire “just kind of stalled out behind Montecito,” leaving “a lit fuse just waiting for things to align.”
The December 16 morning Santa Ana wind was the fuse and most Montecito hillsides are now bald.
“I am very bummed,” he concludes, “that we lost ten homes and the fire damaged at least another ten or twenty. To lose ten homes is devastation for us, but overall, I think [the effort] was tremendously successful.
As for when residents can return: “When we do re-populate areas it needs to be as safe as it possibly can be. We just can’t open zones without making sure of that. We’ve got big trucks and heavy equipment on narrow roads still doing their job; you can imagine what could happen if we let people start coming back into the community early. It would make it very unsafe for the firefighters and very unsafe for [residents].
“In the next couple days the zones below 192 should open up, but those zones above 192 will take a little longer. I’m hoping we can get [fully] re-populated before Christmas, but that remains to be seen. We’re not going to do it unless it’s safe.”
There is special dispensation in place for those seeking to rebuild after a catastrophic event, such as fire, earthquake, flood, or tsunami, which allows homeowners to rebuild without meeting and conforming to existing code requirements. “We’ll allow them to rebuild ‘as it was’ pretty quickly as long as they’re not exceeding their current footprint,” Hickman says.
It’s been a nine-day all-hands-on-deck situation (he has a blow-up mattress in his office) and Chief Hickman is glad to call an end to it. He lives in Ojai and lost his barn and other structures on his property there. For Chip, it’s already been a two-week endeavor with another two weeks to go.
But he and his men (and an army of firefighters who came from Portland, Oregon, to New Mexico and parts in-between) saved Montecito.
Give Coast Village Road a Break
The following is an anonymous letter sent to us, along with a photo that indicts the City of Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Police Department, and is the kind of thing that could inaugurate another push for Montecito cityhood.
“In the midst of one of the most impactful events to ever touch our community, there have been so many instances of people helping others, showing gratitude for the firefighters, and a true sense of community during this scary time. Alternatively, there have been some ugly things to come out of this as well. The ugliest I’ve witnessed first-hand was the incessant parking metering from the City of Santa Barbara that took place on Coast Village Road. For multiple days in a row, with the Thomas Fire raining ash and smoke, the same “meter maid” was out in full force, as if the businesses on Coast Village Road hadn’t been hurt enough.
“Many of the tickets were given out to business owners and employees, who chose to park closer to their offices and shops to lessen their exposure to the foul and dangerous air quality. Even the meter maid was wearing a mask! Every day last week, there were multiple spots open along Coast Village Road, so no shortage of parking.
“Thanks a lot, City of Santa Barbara, for making an already stressful time even worse.”
We are no longer in discussion with Diana Starr Langley concerning her possible purchase of Montecito Journal. She was named publisher of our semi-annual glossy edition in a trial run, and the team – design guru Trent Watanabe, MJ publisher Tim Buckley, managing editor Leanne Wood, and eagle-eyed copy editor James Luksic – turned out a terrific edition.
However, we were not able to finalize terms with the rest of our operation and have mutually called off the transaction. Tim Buckley is and will remain publisher of Montecito Journal (weekly) and will take the reins once again as publisher of Montecito Journal’s glossy edition. He will also continue as editor/publisher of our brother publication, the Santa Barbara Sentinel.
We wish Diana only the best in her next endeavor.