When Katrin Grienitz realized her yard was on fire, she ran outside to check on her horses.
Vegetation was ablaze near the corral and the horses were both too spooked to try to catch. Grienitz says she thought about flinging open the gate so they could run away from the smoke.
Thankfully, a quick response from neighbors with shovels and multiple fire departments quashed the Feb. 11 fire before it spread to the structures, but it gave everyone in the Toro Canyon Road community a big scare.
“We all got very, very lucky here in the canyon,” she told Noozhawk.
The night before, Grienitz’s power started flickering and lights went dim. All her neighbors had power, which is unusual since the entire canyon draws from one power line.
She called Southern California Edison and the man at the other end said it was a scheduled outage. The Outage Center website showed no “pin” for her area, but the man insisted power would be back on at 5 a.m. the next day. She insisted it was strange, with partial power, but didn’t investigate further.
Instead, she woke up to a neighbor’s 5:30 a.m. call alerting her that a fire was burning next to her corral.
“It was a wall of fire with smoke and embers flying over the driveway to the other side of the hill, which faces Summerland,” she said.
Neighbors rushed over with shovels to stop the fire from spreading while the fire engines were on their way. It was very windy and it took the various departments about 30 minutes to get there, she said.
“We were expecting the worst, let’s put it that way,” she said.
Seven engines from the Carpinteria-Summerland, Santa Barbara County and Santa Barbara fire departments made quick work of the fire but stayed at the scene to mop up since it was a windy morning. There were no injuries in the blaze.
The fire was caused by lower-voltage power lines “affected by a tree,” Edison public affairs region manager Rudy Gonzales said.
“We ended up re-stringing new lines of secondary lines,” he added.
It’s up to Edison tree crews to keep clearance, even in windy situations, and they do a “really good job,” Gonzales said.
Grienitz is angry, saying the fire could have been prevented — if the call-taker had handled it differently.
If the wind had changed, if her neighbor hadn’t gotten out of bed to go to the bathroom, or if shovel-wielding residents hadn’t acted so quickly, the situation could have turned out a lot worse.
“One stupid decision” could have caused a huge tragedy, she said. Edison could have just turned off the power to the canyon overnight and come out in the morning, or sent a crew to check it out right away, she said.
“Who should you trust if not when you call them?” she asked, adding that she may consider litigation to address her property damage.
Edison told Grienitz they had no record of her call the night of Feb. 10, and confirmed as much to Noozhawk.
“Normally for no lights or part lights, we would dispatch someone (to the scene) with the trouble order ticket,” Gonzales said.
“The Tuesday morning call is the first call of record that we have for that area,” he said. “The customer adjacent may have made a call, but we just don’t have a record of it. That’s possibly why we didn’t dispatch anyone the night before.”
Edison protocol has call-takers issue a trouble-order ticket for outage reports, and neither of the utility’s phone banks, in Long Beach or Rancho Cucamonga, has a record from the Toro Canyon area that night.
“It’s hard to say what the conversation was, but our first response to the area was the call we received about 6:30 or 6:45 a.m. Tuesday,” Gonzales said.
The U.S. Forest Service is investigating the half-acre fire and law enforcement Officer Brian St. Clair was on the scene later that day. Toro Canyon Road was determined to be on the edge of Los Padres National Forest jurisdiction, he explained.
St. Clair works out of the Mount Pinos Ranger District based in Frazier Park but traveled to the South Coast when no local wildland fire investigators were available that day.
“It was a very, very small fire and people caught it early, but the wind was going pretty good from what I can understand,” he said. “It was put out pretty quickly so was pretty well contained by the time the Forest Service got there; I think it was unnerving because of the proximity of residences to it.”
St. Clair said he can’t discuss the investigation itself, but said his report will be filed in a few days. Then, it goes through various levels of approval within the federal government before being published.