Forester Media’s offices are located in Santa Barbara, CA, a city of some
80,000 inhabitants that has made it into the national news for the fifth time in
less that two years with yet another serious fire.
Named the “Tea Fire” because of its birth in an abandoned but
oft-trespassed tea house in the foothills of neighboring Montecito, as of today
(November 18) the blaze is close to full containment after burning some 2,000
acres, destroying 210 residences, and damaging at least nine others. Twenty-two
cases of smoke inhalation have been reported, along with three burn injuries,
but thankfully no deaths have been attributed to the fire.
During the late fall, Southern California is subject to hot and dry desert
winds known as Santa Anas, which turn vast amounts of brush in the coastal hills
and canyons into ticking time bombs awaiting mere sparks to turn vast areas into
This was the situation Santa Barbara faced on the afternoon of November 13,
when the fire began. By evening, flames had spread to nearly 200 acres and
consumed as many as 100 homes. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for 3,500
residents, with 10,000 standby warnings issued for adjacent areas. By the early
hours of November 14, the fire was approaching its zenith, and I started writing
a running report:
(2:30 a.m.) Once again, Santa Barbara is in flames...this
time I think we may be in big trouble, as the weather report is calling for
scorching temperatures and high winds over the next couple or three days. I’m
looking out at flames less than five miles away leaping 300-plus feet into the
(4 a.m.) It’s still dark, but there are perhaps a dozen
helicopters swooping in to drop water, gliding down to the junior high school
athletic field to load up, then launching again to rejoin the queue...shades of
Vietnam. At first light, the fixed-wing tankers will be taking up the attack,
but if the winds pick up during the day, who knows what will happen?
(9 a.m.) The DC-10 tanker is operating and is able to put
down a convincing deluge…except when you look at it in the larger perspective
where it is no more than a drop in the bucket compared to the fire. Fire crews
from all over the state are arriving and being dispatched to fire lines. The
problem is that the winds make fire lines iffy propositions at best, so we’re
stuck in the wait-and-see mode where we’ve been four times in the past
(10 a.m.) A radio report says that 100 homes have been
destroyed and 3,500 more lie in mandatory evacuation areas. My guess is that the
toll will rise throughout the day and maybe the weekend as well.
(11 a.m.) Just now a pair of Ericson Skycranes (H-54s) came
growling by carrying water tanks to meet a new outbreak in Sycamore Canyon,
where sudden plumes of dark smoke signal the additional losses of structures.
The winds have picked up again, and this in conjunction with the fire’s ability
to make its own weather adds an increased level of uncertainty to the
(Noon) Things have begun really to kick up in the canyons,
and the fire officials admit that they have zero-percent containment. More
plumes of dark smoke accentuate the burn areas, but the prevailing winds seem to
be keeping the fires out of the city proper.
(1 p.m.) Just now, a pair of tanker aircraft
(converted P2 Neptune and P3 Orion) made an in-trail pass over the main portion
of the Mission Canyon blaze, which sits about a mile and a half above the
mission itself. Endangered icons in the area include the Museum of Natural
History, the Botanical Gardens, and the El Encanto Hotel. Smoke obscures much of
the area known as “the Riviera,” overlooking the city and Santa Barbara Channel
and islands, as well as Sycamore and Barker Canyons and the Cold Springs area.
Westmont College in the Montecito foothills reports the loss of two
(3 p.m.) Tankers and helicopters shuttle to and from the
burn areas in a constant assault, and for the first time I have the sense that
the tide of battle is turning in favor of the fire crews. What a magnificent job
they have been doing.
(6 p.m.) While the fire is far from contained, hot spots
continue to shoot flames high into the nighttime sky—yet it appears that the
worst is over.
By the next morning many of the fire crews from other areas had been
released, but their trials were far from over. Ninety miles to south, fires
began to spring up throughout the Los Angeles Basin, beginning with a blaze in
the Sylmar area of the San Fernando Valley, followed by more fires in Orange,
Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties.
Today (November 18) most of the fires are under control, but the devastation
they have wrought is enormous. Yet, despite the toll in dislocation and
suffering for those who lost their homes and possessions, we have the
extraordinary skill and tenacity of hundreds of fire units who pulled out all
the stops to thank for preventing far greater loss of property and life.
We all owe them a great debt of gratitude.