Eagle Canyon Fire 1979

September 18-19, 1979

“Our fire organization is set up similarly to the military and for the same reasons—we have a fast changing situation and data on which to base a decision is constantly scanty. So your fire boss and each man in a line position under him is essentially his own fire boss for his particular area of the fire. The first man at the fire is the overall fire boss.

“Let’s say you are a brand new crewman and you happen to be in a pickup and the fire starts alongside the road and you are the first one there. You are the fire boss and you take the action you are trained to take. Our whole system says you are the fire boss and you get on the radio and you ask for what you think you need and until you are relieved, you hold that responsibility. If the fire grows and the next man who comes up has a superior capability then the new man assumes the responsibility.”

Robert Lancaster
Los Padres Forest Supervisor

FOLLOWING THE 1970 FIRE SEASON, Congress, concerned by the inability of the Forest Service to mobilize sufficient forces during the September/October fire period, orders the agency to develop a system for coordinating wildfire attack by all agencies—Federal, State, County, and Municipal. 

In 1972, this results in the establishment of FIRESCOPE—which stands for Firefighting Resources of Southern California Organized for Potential Emergencies—and includes Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties.

Headquarters established at the Riverside Fire Lab—called the Operational Coordination Center, or OCC—is staffed by Forest Service, Office of Emergency Services, and CDF personnel, and is capable of being quickly expanded into a multi-agency team of Federal, State, County, and City fire chiefs which can determine priorities and deploy firefighting resources anywhere in the state.

“It’s doubtful that you ever have enough resources in a major fire,” explains County Fire Chief William Patterson, in support of the program. “It’s coordinating the mutual aid you’ve always had in the past. 

“The OCC tracks all the fire resources in Southern California,” says Ted Zrelak, Los Padres National Forest fire management officer. “They check with the fire agencies every morning and know exactly how many firefighters and how much equipment is at each location....They know exactly how many bulldozers are at any given fire agency, how many airplanes are available and how many engines are on hand.” A computerized 1,400 square mile map is used to pinpoint all engines, aircraft, and fire crews available. 

“There used to be mass confusion at mutual aid fires,” Patterson adds. “There were too many chiefs and not enough Indians. We ended up having lots of agencies that operated well on their own, but couldn’t work well together.”100 

“It’s now like we’re all one big fire department,” says Ed Waldapfel, a public information officer for the Los Padres Forest Service in the 1970s.

Several other innovations serve to aid firefighters in mounting a swift, coordinated, and extremely efficient fire attack. One of these is a computer program called FIREMOD, which allows dispatchers to predict the rate at which a fire will spread and its eventual size, from the time it is reported to the initial attack on it.

LandSat imagery has made these computer models possible. The photos, which are taken from outer space, have an extremely high degree of resolution. Vegetation in as small as 3-meter squares can be identified, and allows the mapping of all plant cover in Southern California.

Data on fuel type and age class, slope and other terrain characteristics, windspeed and direction, and humidity are fed into the computers and continually updated from fire agencies which are tied into the computer and automatic weather monitoring towers throughout the forests and back country areas. This enables prediction of the location of fire perimeters 6-to-12 hours into the future on major fires, and allows the fire boss to develop a sophisticated plan of strategy for how he or she will allocate suppression forces.

In addition to coordination of the various fire agencies in Southern California and use of computer models to plan fire strategy, the Forest Service concentrates on developing what it calls the “Total Mobility Concept.” To complement the Southern California FIRESCOPE headquarters in Riverside, a North Zone headquarters is established in Redding, with the responsibility of directing mobilization of forces within its zone.

To make sure they are fully mobile, each zone maintains a fire cache stocked with enough equipment to outfit 6,000 firefighters, including trucks, vans, trailers, sleeping bags, rations, and tools. In the North Zone much of this is housed in a fleet of nine semi-trailers, some of which are located out in the field, making it possible to reach any place in the northern part of the state within three hours. 

Probably the most innovative part of FIRESCOPE for coordination of forces at the scene of a fire is the “Incident Command” structure. In Santa Barbara County, training for this structured approach begins in 1975, and by the time the Sycamore Fire starts it is firmly in place. 

At each major fire one “incident commander” is in charge, usually the officer from the department responsible for the area in which the fire begins. Operating directly under the Incident Commander are the information, safety, and liaison officers, and under these three are the planning section chief, logistics section chief, and suppression and rescue section chief.

“By using the system,” says Zrelak, “a uniform emergency structure is set up. The organizational chart is universal and the terminology is standard. All equipment is standard, and firefighting apparatus from one company can be intermeshed with apparatus from another. All training methods are standardized, too.”

“The beauty of it,” says Herb McElwee, who is Incident Commander when the Eagle Canyon Fire first begins, “is that at any time we could flip-flop the command structure to say the Montecito Fire Department if the fire had entered their area.”

In the way that this structure is set up, because all city, county, and state fire personnel are trained in this methodology, once at the fire scene, any fireman can initiate the incident command 101 

structure until a more experienced officer appears, at which time a smooth transition can be made. At the Eagle Canyon Fire, when County Fire Chief Patterson reaches the command center, McElwee relinquishes control and shifts over to run another section. Later, when the fire enters the Los Padres National Forest, one of their officers becomes co-commander, demonstrating how well the FIRESCOPE system works.

The morning of the fire, representatives from all fire and law enforcement agencies meet to discuss strategies. “We had requested an automatic road closure for any incident that might have happened,” says McElwee. “The CHP had told their people to be aware of smoke and reminded their officers of the extreme fire conditions. When the fire broke out, we didn’t have to call anyone. It was all prearranged.

“We had had a conference call from the OCC in Riverside and all the contract companies were on the phone. We talked about the possible release of equipment in case something should happen. The OCC said that it had two strike teams that were going to be sent to Sacramento, but because of weather conditions, they were set to Santa Barbara instead. So when the fire broke, the strike team was already in Carpinteria and became part of our initial task force.”

Though it is not cheap—costing more than $7 million dollars to get going, FIRESCOPE has been one of the most important innovations in firefighting history.

“We don’t mean to say that it is a panacea,” says Patterson, “but it’s sure helping. “The nicest thing about FIRESCOPE,” adds Zrelak, “is that it works.”

IF THE FIRE HADN’T STARTED there, Santa Barbarans might never have heard of Eagle Canyon. Because the foothills behind the city have been accessible to the public since Presidio days and many trails lead up into the mountains, local residents are fairly familiar with Mission, Rattlesnake, Cold Springs, and San Ysidro Canyons.

The canyons and foothills behind Goleta are still a mystery to most of us, however. In the 1850s, when California entered the union, large Spanish land holdings such as the La Goleta, El Capitan, and Refugio Ranchos, located between Goleta and Gaviota, remained intact. Even after their breakup, partly due to disastrous droughts in the early 1860s and an influx of wealthy Americans in the latter part of the 19th Century, today much of the land behind Goleta still remain as large ranches, 

Just to the west of Rancho Embarcadero, Farren Road leads into a small part of this mysterious land. The ridge the road follows is knifebladed—long and thin—providing pleasing views into the canyons on either side; Eagle Canyon is to the west and Tecolote to the east. The road meanders along the crest Santa Ynez Mountains for several miles, passing through groves of avocados that cover what were once hillsides of thick chaparral. Now the orchards provide a fire buffer of sorts between the mountain brush and the coastal strip. 

Abruptly, where the underlying clay and shale soils end and a more resistant formation begins, the mountain wall rises steeply 3,000 feet to the crest of a massive sandstone flatiron known as Condor Point. At the base of the flatirons are several huge estates, two-story white stucco and orange tiled Spanish-style structures, a bright coloring against the dull chaparral. Though not too far from downtown Goleta, they seem a distant retreat from civilization.

It is a quaint and picturesque country, a perfect place for a mountain retreat or a small ranch. Near the end of the canyon on the west side of Farren Road is a large grove of eucalyptus, and situated near it is the Eagle Canyon Ranch, where the fire begins.102 

Ignited near one of the outlying buildings by a motorcycle with a faulty muffler, the fire begins to burn rapidly downcanyon through the thick, dry grass, and upslope through the Eucalyptus grove over and into Tecolote Canyon. As the hot column of flame and smoke builds in intensity, huge pieces of red-hot embers and smaller glowing coals are thrown out in all directions. 

The wind gusts, whipping one way, then another, concentrating the flames like the blast from a blacksmith’s bellows, forcing them up one draw, then another, creating not one wall of advancing flame but a hundred small fronts generally proceeding downcanyon towards the ocean and in the direction of the homes situated in the Winchester tract. The santa ana winds cause the flames to sweep through the grass at a speed in some places that would outdistance a swift runner, as fast almost as a “wave” created by fans at a football game. 

At nearly the same time, another fire breaks out near Lake Cachuma, but fortunately because OCC forces are nearby in Carpinteria, and because of the smooth allocation of forces to both fires due to the FIRESCOPE system, losses are kept to the bare minimum. 

Jim Braly is on the first day of his vacation. It is noon and he is busy in his garage, trying to repair a power saw, when he hears someone outside exclaim, “Look at that.” It is a neighbor, Alan Hirschenhofer. Jim wanders out into the driveway and when he looks up he exclaims, “Oh my god, no.” The sky is filled with smoke.

“It was easy to see that the smoke was coming from beyond the gently rolling hills about a mile away,” he says. “No problem,” he thinks. But the smoke clouds begin to thicken, rising even higher, diluting the sunlight, giving an eerie orange tint to the lawn.

“It’s a long way away,” Braly continues to think, trying to convince himself he and his home are safe. “No way it could get here. No way it could jump Winchester Canyon Road.” He returns into the garage and continues on his home improvement project.

About 2 pm he walks to the corner of Bradford and Winchester Canyon Road to check the fire’s progress. Others crowd the corner. The flames are now visible and the wind seems hotter and stronger.

A sheriff patrol car drives by, its bullhorn blaring. “Let’s clear the area immediately,” the officer says. “Let’s move out. Come on.” No one seems to heed the order. Many of the residents are busy, on the roofs of their houses, watering them down. When Jim sees his neighbor Judy Lopez spraying her rooftop, he decides it is time to abandon the project and do the same to his.

The fire has begun just before noon in the upper end of Eagle Canyon near Farren Road, about two miles from Highway 101. The temperature is in the 100s and the winds are swirling to 40 miles per hour, moving strongly towards the ocean in a typical sundowner fashion, and causing the fire to hopscotch in and out of Eagle and Tecolote Canyons, then down into Winchester Canyon, striking with a savage swiftness.

In the twenty-five years since the Refugio Fire, housing tracts, like slow moving slugs, have spread out along the western edge of the Goleta Valley. Suburbia has found this edge of Santa Barbara’s rural terrain. Now, hundreds of homes lay in the fire’s path. 103 

“I watched the fire come this way from my apartment,” Dan De La Vega tells a reporter. “It started out really small, but the flames were jumping all over the place and it spread quickly. It only took an hour and a half for it to reach the top of that hill,” he adds, pointing to the ridge just west of the San Miguel housing project. “It’s a good thing those orchards were there or the whole area would have been wiped out.”

Hundreds of people now congregate near the intersection of Bradford and Winchester Canyon, prevented by sheriffs from returning to their San Miguel homes. As the fire jumps around, hopping from canyon to canyon, the heavy winds spit out glowing firebrands hundreds of yards in front of the wall of flame, igniting new fires everywhere. The unpredictable pattern of the “this way-that way” winds and ever-shifting fire causes the spectators to go through a roller coaster of emotions. At one moment they cheer when the wind seems to be pushing the main front away from them; at another there is a convulsive heave of panic when they shift once again in the direction of the housing tract.

The afternoon has turned into alternating periods of running and waiting, watching the dense smoke and flames march closer—whether from the corner, a rooftop—or inbetween the frantic trips back and forth from house to car, which are stuffed with an assortment of odds and ends, what each family has decided is worthy of being saved.

For Kevin Mendoza, age 10, it is his record collection. “I never really thought it would happen,” he says. “And then it happened. From our roof it seemed like it was right there. It was hard. I couldn’t think. Then the only thing I could think of was my albums.”

When Wawva Thompson reaches her home, which she had been forced to evacuate during the Refugio Fire, the flames are racing across the grass meadows like a prairie fire. “I just took my clothes and my pictures and my dog and my cat.”

Kirby Duncan, a Santa Barbara police lieutenant, stands near his loaded Chevy Blazer, ready to go. “I’ve got some of my valuables here, whatever they may be,” he explains, “But what do you take? I moved here with a Blazer full of stuff and I guess I’ll leave here with a Blazer full of stuff.”

About 2 pm the sundowner winds begin to pour over the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains near Condor Point with a fierce intensity, and the fire begins to make a dramatic run down Eagle and Tecolote Canyons directly towards the ocean. In the firestorm several houses are destroyed in Eagle Canyon and traffic on Highway 101 is threatened by the flames and billowing clouds of thick brown smoke. The fire leaps the freeway and continues to burn right to the bluffs at the ocean’s edge, then turns east and begins to eat its way towards the Ellwood Oil Fields and Sandpiper Golf Course, causing long rows of Eucalyptus trees along the edge of the Southern Pacific railroad tracks to burn like 100-foot tall torches.

At their rented home on the cliffs overlooking the Ellwood Pier, Elena Tringali and her husband, John Stallings, watch the fire burn in their direction. They leave when advised to do so by County firemen, unable to take with them any of their possessions. The firefighters, more concerned about the possibility of the fire causing a major explosion in the oil field, turn their attention toward it, and without sufficient personnel on hand, are unable to protect the house. It burns completely. 

At first, sheriff’s patrolmen attempt to convoy vehicles through the heavy smoke that drifts back and forth across Highway 101. Several groups are escorted through, but the highway is closed to 104 

through traffic after one of the patrol cars stops in the middle of the smoke and the car behind it crashes into the rear if it, disabling the sheriff’s vehicle. Hundreds of cars and semi-trucks come to an abrupt halt in both directions. Eventually the traffic is rerouted, but not without causing a massive headache. It is not reopened until almost 24 hours later.

Rom Dul is a nine-year-old Cambodian child who attends Ellwood School. When the freeway is closed he and his sister, Ran, age 7, are stranded, separated from their parents who live and work on the Morehead Ranch, which is west of the burn area. A temporary sanctuary is set up at the Goleta Valley Community Center for these and other children who have been cut off from their parents.

“Some parents had come early to get their children,” Sharon Hull, a third grade teacher at Ellwood, explains. “We were trying to keep them calm and inside, and not noticing the fire during the day.”

But at 3 pm, when the flames can be seen traveling in the school’s direction, not more than a mile away, Rom, his sister, and the remaining children are evacuated in private cars to the community center. “Everyone was calm and peaceful,” says Principal Steve Bogad. Once there the kids are served soft drinks and given games to play.

Though many parents worry frantically about their children, not knowing where they are, the kids, unfazed by the distraction, play happily. Others who are being taken care of at the center include Jennifer and Suzanne Hall, twins who are 10 years old.

“At first everybody said it was the dump that was burning,” Suzanne tells Barney Brantingham, “Then we could see it was over by our house.” It isn’t so much the worry of her house burning, but all the awful things she could hear people saying. “Everyone was scaring everybody else. A lot of people were crying,” she continues.”

“I was,” adds Jennifer.

At house after house along Calle Real, Bradford Drive, St. George Place, St. Charles, Bristol, and St. Ives, families are busy, some watering their roofs; others are laying out what they will take with them if it comes to that. On St. Charles Place, Judy Sarena watches her sons load household possessions into the family carryall. “I guess I’ve just got fire fever, because my folks lost their home in the Sycamore Fire,” explaining why she isn’t about to wait any longer before she and the boys leave. 

Nearby, two men work determinedly with a chainsaw to cut overhanging branches away from the roof of their house. From another lawn a radio blares, Paul McCartney filling the neighborhood with a familiar melody. A man stands on the corner shooting super-8 movies. Another patrol car drives by. “We’d like everybody to clear out,” the officer says over the car’s PA system.

The scene has become something like that of a neighborhood block party, though weirdly, a rooftop one. 

Back at his house, Jim Braly’s wife calls to find out how everything is going. He answers with the response he has given others who have called. “Just fine,” he says, “There’s probably no way the fire could jump Winchester Canyon Road.”

Suddenly, however, the wind turns towards the Winchester homes, stronger and hotter than ever. A wall of flame edges towards them. People are in the streets, running. 105 

“All right, get the hoses—here it comes,” a man yells. “Help me get the wet rags for my face,” another shouts down to his son from the rooftop. Cars and trucks which are packed begin to move out as many of the residents flee to safety, abandoning the effort to save their homes.

A backfire is set by firemen in heavy yellow canvas clothing along the western edge of Winchester Drive in an attempt to head off the fire. By this time the sky is full of aerial bombers. Almost at once six of them drop full loads of fire retardant—more than 38,000 gallons of it in just over three hours. 

Just as quickly as the wind has turned toward them, for no apparent reason it shifts to the northwest and away from them. The houses are saved. 

Jim Braly watches this shift in fortune from his roof. In a half-minute his thoughts turn from the almost certain destruction of his house to feelings of elation. From his position he can see the backfire taking hold in the pastures across from the housing tracts, and knows there is now a buffer of fire-blackened land that should protect them from any runs the fire might make back in their direction.

When his wife returns home shortly after that her first question is, “Where are the cats?” At first there is a moment of panic—Jim has left the backyard gate open—but after a few moments of crisis they are located hiding in a hedge. 

Through the whole afternoon one woman has spent the time on the roof of her house despite the sometimes intense smoke and heat. “Barefooted, working back and forth across the roof of heavy shakes, she wet them down over and over as protection against the fire that was destined to billow and roll right up to the fence across the street,” writes News-Press reporter Steve Sullivan. “No one could coax her down, until at last, with the once-golden pasture transformed into a black waste and with only a few smoldering fenceposts to offer threat.”

Only then did Sylvia Wood, 19, call it a day.

What is good news for Winchester residents is not so for those in the San Miguel tract. The northward shift has put them directly in the face of the hot flames. 

At 3:15 pm three big California Office of Emergency Services trucks and a red pumper from Santa Barbara move in to defend the 150 homes which are situated there. A cluster of residents cheer as they pass, then bide their time by praying and asking questions to those who stream out of the area about conditions down in the tract.

Red flames move across pastures towards their homes. A man mounted on horseback rides in the midst of a herd of cattle, quieting the animals and moving them out of harm’s way.

Several homeowners approach a roadblock.

“Can’t I get back into my house?” one of them asks.

“No sir, the area’s been closed,” the deputy answers.

“Sir, we have a little at stake,” the homeowner responds. “Those are our homes down there. Let us go down—we’ll get out as soon as you give us the word.”

“I’m hired to protect you,” the patrolman replies, standing his ground. “A hundred or hundred and fifty thousand dollar house isn’t much compared to a human life.”106 

Discouraged, they step back to their cars and watch as the fire burns down a ridge toward their homes, thoughts locked inside themselves. 

At 4:05 pm five more pumpers pass the group of dispirited men and drive slowly into a smoke-filled horizon and disappear down into Winchester Canyon. Behind them is a third wave of trucks, a strike force which has just arrived from the Los Angeles County Fire Department. With men and equipment on the scene hope and optimism soar. At 4:20 several busloads of firefighters join the battle, bringing the manpower in the San Miguel area to 500.

Columns of smoke continue to rise from the heart of the tract as Eucalyptus trees surrounding it become oily torches. Some people express the opinion that the homes are now going up in flames; others that it might be cars or garages, clinging to the hope that it might be these and not houses.

A few minutes later a sheriff’s vehicle emerges from the canyon. “It looks like they’re going to hold it,” he says to the anxious spectators. Miraculously, the firefighters have done their job against what have appeared to be insurmountable odds. 

Mike Martinez, manager of the meat department at Chapala Market, is one of those who has remained in the tract to try to save his house. “I feel like I worked for this all my life, so I wasn’t just going to drop it and leave it,” he tells reporter Dave Hardy.

With the help of friends Bruce Hollingsworth and Conrad Escareno, Martinez loads his pickup and boat with file cabinets, mattresses, televisions, and furniture and Hollingsworth’s truck with clothing and the things he knew he couldn’t replace like photo albums, pictures, and home movies.

“We left all the bills,” he jokes.

At 1:30 pm when patrol cars drive through the area telling everyone to evacuate Martinez gets worried enough to ask his wife and children to leave.

After sending his family away with the salvaged items, he and his friends concentrate on saving the house, dragging several hoses up on the roof, as well as several 30 gallon trash cans, which he fills with water in case of an emergency. For the next seven hours the men remain on the roof.

“I’ve never been through this in my life,” he tells people afterwards. “We went through the earthquake last year but that was just a few minutes. This is scarier. The earthquake was over with and you could evaluate the damage. But even now I’m not comfortable.

“I know I’m not going to sleep tonight,” he adds, just after sunset, sure that his home is safe. “Everywhere I look there is still fire.” Then after a moment of reflection about the afternoon’s heroics he laughs.

“You know what’s funny. These people across the street just moved in a week ago. I don’t even know their names yet. That’s a hell of a way to move into a neighborhood.”

Elena Tringali and John Stallings have spent the night at the Sandman Motel, not knowing that their Ellwood bluff home has burned to the ground. “The man there was so nice,” Elena remembers, “Though there was no vacancy, he found us a room and didn’t even charge us for it.”107 

When they return to the Ellwood area the next day, all that remains of their home is the chimney and a pile of rubble. They are not completely disheartened though. “A lot of neat people are offering to help,” she says. “There’s no rush. We’re going to do it one step at a time.”

David Vincent and his family are not so lucky either. In addition to the house rented by Tringali and Stallings, four other homes have been destroyed by the 4,000 acre Eagle Canyon Fire. Two of them are on the Eagle Canyon Ranch; another in Rancho Embarcadero. The fourth is the Vincent residence. 

When the fire shifts in the direction of the San Miguel homes it burns down a ridge near his home, blackens the side of a barn, then turns on his house. When he returns later with a friend he finds a rooster, his hens and their broods intact though not the house.

“The fire that leveled the house is still burning,” Keith Dalton writes in a News-Press article the following day. “Appliances, their paint scorched off, stand starkly among the ruins. A few feet outside what had been the front door is an overturned lawn chair. Water from a still-flowing garden hose forms puddles in the ashes. 

“Near the corral a basketball net on a steel pole stands. The net did not burn. The chickens peck among the Vincent possessions—books, papers, a gas lawn mower—that were not burned.”

“Is this your house?” another reporter asks.

“Yeah,” Vincent replies.

“Was,” echoes the friend as they both walk away from the ruins, facing a future full of anguish and decisions about what to do next.

AS WITH MANY FIRES, when the sundowner effect subsides, and the cooler marine air begins to move onshore, the fire turns back on itself and begins to burn inland. For a while there is a fear that it might join up with the Cachuma Fire, and turn into the type of inferno witnessed in 1955, but firefighters are able to keep the Eagle Canyon Fire from sloping over onto the north side of the Santa Ynez Mountains. 

Though it has burned 4,000 acres and destroyed five homes, the coordinated and highly sophisticated response now the mark of Southern California firefighting forces has kept it from becoming as disastrous as the fire witnessed in Santa Barbara just two years earlier.

Still, residents are frightened. In a few minutes more than an hour, this fire has burned from the chaparral-covered mountain slopes across the freeway to the ocean’s edge. What if this had occurred in a more populated area people wonder? 

People think back to the Sycamore Fire. What if it had begun earlier in the day as with this fire? Could it have gone down into the Milpas area as people suggested it would? Might it have burned right into the heart of State Street? Will it be worse the next time?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015