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Painted Cave Volunteer Fire Department Plays Key Role as Frontline Defense

Remote mountain community surprisingly well-equipped with gear, preparedness

A change in wind direction is credited with saving most of Painted Cave during the devastating 1965 Coyote Fire, which scorched 67,000 acres as it raced across the foothills and mountainsides above Santa Barbara. The blaze destroyed 19 homes in the remote community, however, and the experience motivated residents to form a volunteer fire department.

Today, the Painted Cave Volunteer Fire Department has a crew of 20 residents and three maneuverable engines specialized for fighting backcountry fires.

“People here are getting much better prepared from learning lessons from previous fires,” Painted Cave Fire Chief Kevin Buckley said.

During last year's Jesusita Fire, Painted Cave volunteer firefighters kept a wary eye on rapidly approaching flames.
During last year’s Jesusita Fire, Painted Cave volunteer firefighters kept a wary eye on rapidly approaching flames. (doug hamilton file photo)

While residents’ proactive attitude toward wildfires prompted the creation of the department, Buckley said it’s the grants that keep it well-equipped — like when the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid about $250,000 for the department’s first engine.

“It was really nice to see that when people were complaining about FEMA from (Hurricane) Katrina,” Buckley said.

According to Buckley, it takes at least 20 minutes for firefighters from the nearest Santa Barbara County Fire Station to reach the area because of the winding mountain roads. County fire Capt. David Sadecki, a department spokesman, put the response time at between eight and 12 minutes from Highway 154.

Buckley and Sadecki agree that is in the best interest of the U.S. Forest Service and the federal government to support small volunteer fire departments like Painted Cave’s because they can help extinguish fires before they grow in Los Padres National Forest.

“Investing in local volunteer departments is advantageous because they can get there quickly and put fires out, which saves a lot of money in the long run,” Buckley said.

The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that 70 percent of the nation’s 30,000 fire departments are entirely manned by volunteers.

When a fire is reported in the Painted Cave area, the volunteers act as first responders until forest service and county firefighters arrive. Once on the scene, the county Fire Department takes command and the volunteers serve in whatever role is needed, Sadecki said.

“We aren’t here to replace them but just here to help,” Buckley said.

Painted Cave resident Marc McGinnes said the volunteer fire department is essential to living in the secluded community.

“I really take (fires) seriously and if there wasn’t a volunteer fire department I probably wouldn’t live there,” McGinnes said.

McGinnes remembers having four or five firefighters from West Los Angeles sleep in his home during the 1990 Painted Cave Fire, their fire engine parked in his driveway.

“They were very frank about it,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re scared.’”

Twenty years ago Sunday — late on the afternoon of June 27, 1990 — the Painted Cave Fire ignited and swept down the mountain, propelled by fierce sundowner winds. In just three hours, the blaze burned almost 5,000 acres, destroyed 427 homes and 11 public buildings, and killed a woman who tried to outrun the flames. Despite the fire’s name, Painted Cave was spared by the wildfire.

Painted Cave volunteer firefighters train weekly, laying hoses and using computer-automated simulations that send them to a site, Buckley said. The volunteers also work at clearing brush to remove fire fuel and make homes more defensible.

Painted Cave residents had a level view as air tankers dropped fire retardant to stop the advance of the 2009 Jesusita Fire.
Painted Cave residents had a level view as air tankers dropped fire retardant to stop the advance of the 2009 Jesusita Fire. (doug hamilton file photo)

McGinnes said the department also plays an important role with educating community members about how to defend their homes, including how to spray on a heat-resistant, protective gel. The forest service recognizes the gel as being environmentally friendly, he said.

“It takes a volunteer department to raise community wildfire awareness so fire prevention can occur,” he said.

The department’s three Type 3 engines are the same model as those operated by the county department, Sadecki said. They are lighter than engines used in residential areas and are equipped with four-wheel drive for going off road.

The trade-off for the vehicles is that they can carry less equipment and have smaller water pumps, Sadecki said. The trucks have a capacity of 500 gallons of water.

With more people building homes amid the dense vegetation of the Santa Barbara foothills, Buckley believes Painted Cave’s volunteer firefighters make neighboring communities safer as well.

“If you can put a fire out in the first few minutes you can control it,” Buckley said. “If we can put them out up here, they don’t get down there.”

Noozhawk intern Daniel Langhorne will be a junior at Chapman University in the fall. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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