Jesusita Comes To Alta Mira

Santa Barbara, California, May 2009

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On Tuesday a fire started to burn in the Jesusita Trail area of Santa Barbara. We watched with some concern, but the fire was east of us and the wind was blowing the smoke away from us. You can’t live in Southern California and ignore a fire anywhere near you, but it was quite a ways off and we weren’t worried yet.


I put a video camera on the roof and started capturing time lapse movies of the smoke. Click on the play button below this picture.


Wednesday morning looked pretty good. But in the afternoon the winds came up and fanned the flames. By 4:00 the smoke was looking pretty ominous behind the house across the street. But the fire was still east of us, and the wind was still blowing the smoke away. It was sunny and clear where we were. We had no ash and coundn’t even smell smoke.

In Wednesday’s time lapse movie you can see how the smoke got increasingly worse during the afternoon. Also, the fire is moving west (to the left) in the movie frame. This is not good news for us.

From the Barger Canyon overlook you can see giant flames. For scale, note the four very tall high tension electrical towers.


Thursday morning looked better again. The fire seemed to have died down overnight. But lots of helicopters were flying overhead to get water for drops.


We sat down for dinner on Thursday night and I could see the hills to the north of us. For the first time I could see flames directly behind us. This is not good, because it means a sundowner wind will put us in the path of the fire. Now we’re starting to get worried. Sue and I begin to move the firewood pile and old lumber away from the house. The smoke is blowing directly overhead and we can see flames behind the houses up the street. The air is taking on a red glow. You can see how the fire spreads west even though the wind tends to be blowing east. Embers create new small fires to the left of the original fire line.

The sky is brown with smoke and the helicopters are constant…


Soon there are huge wind-blown firestorms in the hills directly above us….

And the flames are getting closer.

By 7:30 things were changing more quickly than we could keep up with. The air was electric with danger, the helicopters were pounding overhead, and the ash had begun to fall in hard black bits that hit the ground with the sound of rain. The ash was gritty in your hair and on your arms. I raced up to the roof and took down the video camera. I put the computer in the truck.


And then the fire engine came down the street with its horn blaring and a loudspeaker shouting “You must evacuate now. Everyone must get out immediately.” Or something like that. Neither Sue or I can remember exactly what he said. It seemed unreal. It was happening too fast. I ran upstairs and there was a fireman in the entryway who came in to tell us to get out. But Sue can’t find Chelsea. The fireman says we have to leave without the dog. Sue finds Chelsea on the patio and puts her in the car. At the last minute, with the flames looking like they’re at the end of Debra Drive, I told Sue I thought I would stay for a couple more minutes. She’s not at all happy to hear this, but there’s no time to argue. She REALLY wants to leave RIGHT NOW. I put Willie in the car and they take off.

The end of the last time lapse movie shows the approaching fire between 6:30 and 7:41. We didn’t see this until later. We were too busy getting ready to leave. To see how fast this fire was burning, notice the speed of the fire around 7:00 PM (a time stamp is at the bottom of each frame). Each new image is just five seconds later, and the fire is about a mile away.

Thursday night

Pretty soon everyone was gone and it got quiet. The fire on the hill died down again. My truck was parked facing out , with the keys on the floor by the ignition. Antone Road is wide. I knew I could be out in seconds, and I wouldn’t wait until there were only seconds left. I helped save the house of a friend in the Sycamore fire by staying on the roof with a hose. In that fire the wind was raging and it was raining red embers all around us. But Thursday night the wind was not that strong and there were no embers. I felt like I had time to evaluate. In the Sycamore fire the house next door burned to the ground because there was no one there to put out a small fire on the deck. I wanted to consider the possiblility of saving my own house if it was necessary and possible.

Now that the panic had passed I was starting to enjoy myself. I kept spraying the house with the hose to get everything wet. There were no firemen around and the neighborhood was deserted. The fire was close but I had plenty of time to keep working. Eventually the fire trucks starting pulling in one after another. There were five or six engines parked in front of my house and dozens of yellow-clad firemen were laying down in the driveway to rest. It felt like I was in the safest part of town. There were more than enough men and equipment to save our houses.

We had figured that the firemen would keep the houses from buring along the street. But we worried that, if the field behind us caught fire, it would burn across to the oak woods and race up the steep hillside to the house. The field was still full of last year’s dry, woody mustard stalks that were at least 6 feet tall. The cows that used to keep the brush down had been declared “illegal” and evicted.

No one had made any other provisions to control the brush. The field was a tinder box, and though I had called County Parks about it weeks ago, no one returned my call.

I watched with binoculars as the fires got closer to the field. I watched the fire burn up the front face of the hillside below the houses at the top of La Vista. It seemed that the houses could not survive, though only three of them burned in the end. The flames leapt higher than their roofs.

Eventually the far side of the field caught fire, and it began to burn relentlessly towards me, making a loud crackling sound, like frying eggs.

I stayed out of sight because I thought the firemen would throw me out if they knew I was there. I skulked around in the dark keeping an eye on the firemen and the fire, drinking water from the hose so they wouldn’t see the refrigrator light come on. I spent a while in a hammock at the bottom of our yard with the 80 degree wind blowing, the hard ash falling into the dry oak leaves making a “tick, tick tick” sound, and the fire crackling in the field. It was incredibly invigotating and pleasant to be surrounded by all of this balmy drama, but still be in limbo before the consequences would be paid. I sprained an ankle pretty badly by misstepping on the stairs in the dark.

I went up to the bedroom window for a high view of the field, and to judge how close the fire was getting. It now stretched across the whole width of the field.

I was beginning to feel that I had served my purpose and there would be nothing I could do to stop the fire. I thought I might leave and let the firemen do their job. So I went out front and spoke to a guy in a fire truck. He was very friendly and not surprised to see me. He asked what my plans were and I said I had a couple more things to pack and then I’d be going. He seemed unconcerned. So I stayed a little longer. About midnight two guys in yellow suits came around behind the house to see how they might defend it.

I showed them the problem areas, how the trees were, and how steep the yard was. They seemed to think they had options and I was encouraged. They looked at the near hill of the field and decided that, when the flames crossed that ridge, it might be time to get to work. I took them down the street and showed them how they could get into the field. I came back upstairs and watched as the field burned closer.

The line of fire would periodically get really tall, with little tornados of flame. Then it would die down to near embers and I’d think we’d make it after all. But it kept coming. Eventually the flames crested the hillside the firemen had mentioned, but the firemen didn’t come back. The fire burned up to the pine tree by the power pole behind the Mendelson house, and the tree went up like a roman candle. As the tree burned out, the branches glowed red like a demonic Christmas tree.

Around 1:00 AM two firemen came into the back yard. By now it seemed to me that the fire was perilously close. But these guys were perfectly calm and relaxed. I showed them the trees and bushes, and we casually walked to the bottom of the yard so they could see the ground cover and the lay of the land. We could see and hear the fire crackling through the oak trees. We walked back up and I asked if they would be able to get a water line into the back yard when the time came. They said they were sorry, but no, there were not enough resources in this fire to do that, and I was on my own. They said I could water down the oak trees with a garden hose and hope for the best, but to keep my exit path clear becuase the house was insured but I wasn’t. It was up to Nature now. And then they were gone. Shortly afterwards all the engines and crews from in front of the house were gone as well.

It looked like a bad end for us. I went back to the bedroom window to watch the line of fire get closer. I called Sue and told her I didn’t see how we could get out of this one, and I feared the house was a goner. I was probably still amped up on adrenaline, but it didn’t seem so bad to me. I kept thinking that I would be rid of all that BAGGAGE and be able to start over with a clean plate. All of the antique clocks would burn, all of the musical instruments I had made, my computer gear and electronic tools and components. We could build a smaller house that was more charming than this 1965 split level. Life goes on.

I watched as the line of fire burned up to the trees and the power pole at the bottom of our yard.

The fire was moving pretty slowly now. There was no raging wind. There was no rain of embers. The firemen had been perfectly relaxed when we walked down into the yard and looked around. I thought I might go back down and see if I could stop spot fires with a hose and keep it from spreading up the yard. When I got there I could see the flames just through the trees. But they were not huge flames. The wind was calm. As I watched, the flames seemed to wither and grow smaller. Then they were more like embers. And then they went out. By 3:00 AM it seemed to be over.

The firemen had kept the fire off the street from above, and the fire in the field didn’t have enough energy to push through to our trees.In the morning I went down to see what had happened. There was a footpath of bare dirt at the edge of the field. It had acted as a fire break. At the critical moment, the fire didn’t have enough energy to cross it. We were just plain lucky.


A firefighter in the field

Where the fire lacked power it was not very destructive. Here you can see how the leaf litter burned below the oak trees behind Carter’s house, but the oak trees were fine.

Where the fire was intense, like Barger Canyon behind La Vista Road, there was much more destruction. Upper Barger Canyon Road has been unmaintained for many years and allowed to become greatly overgrown with brush. Even so, the upper limbs of the oak trees still have leaves.

Local wildlife paid a steep price for the fire. One can only imagine how many small animals died or were displaced. Barger Canyon Road is littered with the burned bodies of small animals including rats, mice, a bunny, a small bird, and a hawk, seen here.

We found this bobcat in our yard, at the top of the creek bed, where he had followed the runoff water upstream, away from the burned-out field behind us.

The following three pictures are links to QuickTime panoramas of the burned field. If you have the current version of QuickTime on your computer, you can click on each of these pictures to get a 360 degree panorama of the fire scene. Use your mouse to drag the view around. You can also zoom in and out. Use your BACK button to return to this page after viewing a panorama.

On Monday, May 25th, eighteen days after the fire burned down the hill, smoldering embers reignited on the hillside above us. Firefighters were called in and it took them a couple of hours to water down and rake through the debris to put it out.

In September small planes spent many days flying over the burned hillsides to drop hydromulch. This mixture of wood fiber and paper will hold water and help protect the burned hillsides from erosion when the rains come this winter. Over 1,000 acres were to be covered at a cost of more than three million dollars.

Tuesday, May 5

Friday, May 8

Next Spring