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Bill Macfadyen: Fast Response to Lookout Fire Keeps Painted Cave Out of Harm’s Way

Best of Noozhawk 10.19.12 follows Melchiori Construction to its end, Bishop Ranch's future and a decomposed body, then goes back in the water for great white sharks

What were you reading on Noozhawk this past week?

1. Lookout Fire Near Painted Cave Declared Fully Contained

Old-timers like me well remember the 1990 Painted Cave Fire, which killed a woman and destroyed 427 homes in just two hours as its wind-fueled flames raced down the mountainside. So, early on the morning of Oct. 17, many South Coast residents were unnerved to see a towering cloud of smoke in the general vicinity.

The Oct. 17 blaze was reported at 8 a.m. in rugged terrain above the remote Painted Cave community below San Marcos Pass. Authorities ordered 100 homes evacuated as fire crews attacked the Lookout Fire from the ground and from the air.

Noozhawk reporter Lara Cooper was on the scene throughout the day, relaying information back to executive editor Tom Bolton. Our dynamic duo kept readers informed with continuous updates until the worst of the danger had passed that evening.

In all, Santa Barbara County fire Capt. David Sadecki said 16 fire engines were deployed, along with four water tenders, four bulldozers, four hand crews, four water-dropping helicopters and a fleet of air tankers dumping fire retardant. Additional firefighters and equipment arrived from outside the area.

The fire eventually grew to more than 40 acres before it was declared fully contained Oct. 18. No structures were damaged and no serious injuries were reported. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Lara went back up the mountain the next day to talk with Painted Cave residents. Their relief was hard to hide, not that they tried.

“If the wind had been blowing, there would have been deaths,” said Marc McGinnis, who has lived on Ogram Road since 1982. “It was right on the edge of the community.”

Alissa Sears, whose family has lived in Painted Cave since 1984, said this week’s fire was the closest call they’ve ever had.

“What struck me more than anything was the truly remarkable work of our firefighters and community coming together to effectively address a fire that could have so quickly gone out of control,” she told Noozhawk.

2. Bankruptcy Filing Spells the End for Melchiori Construction

For months now, Noozhawk reporter Lara Cooper has broken exclusive after exclusive as she’s followed the saga of Melchiori Construction Co. It may not be the final nail in the coffin, but she reported on Oct. 16 that the privately held company had voluntarily entered Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings.

Noozhawk readers have been fascinated with the Melchiori Construction tale, which appears to have begun unraveling following the 2009 death of founder and family patriarch Ugo Melchiori.

During the stewardship of Melchiori’s son, Mark, the company has been beset with financial problems. Earlier this year, it was cited by the Contractors State License Board for failing to pay subcontractors working on Santa Barbara County’s new Emergency Operations Center. UC Santa Barbara fired the company from a $6.5 million construction project over what it said were months of unfinished work. Several lawsuits have been filed with allegations of financial irregularities.

Perhaps the most intriguing incident involved a family feud that burst into the open last month. As Lara first reported, Mark Melchiori’s stepmother, Linda, sued him over a $100,000 loan she says he convinced her to make to prop up the company. The lawsuit contains a number of explosive allegations, among them that her stepson’s divorce earlier this year was a scheme to hide assets from creditors his company owes. Through their attorneys, the younger Melchiori and his former wife, Heather, have denied the accusations.

Neither Mark Melchiori nor his attorney responded to Noozhawk’s requests for comment about the bankruptcy filing. Court documents Noozhawk obtained from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Santa Barbara list company assets at $50,000 or less, and debts of $1 million to $10 million.

3. Bishop Ranch Ends Plans to Develop Property in Goleta

Noozhawk reporter Giana Magnoli broke a major story of her own Oct. 16 when she revealed that the owners of Bishop Ranch had terminated their development agreement with Michael Keston. The expectant developer had toiled for more than a decade to build homes and commercial buildings on the 240-acre site, which is one of Goleta’s most distinctive landscapes.

Giana obtained a copy of a letter that the property owner, University Exchange Corp., emailed to City Manager Dan Singer late that afternoon. In the letter, the UEC announced it had called off the agreement and that it was withdrawing all development-related applications for the property.

Bishop Ranch has long been a flashpoint in Goleta Valley battles over development and growth. Sprawled across gently rolling hills north of Highway 101 between Los Carneros and Glen Annie roads, the property is zoned for agricultural use but ag experts say poor soil and the absence of water make the land useless. It’s been all but abandoned for decades.

That’s just fine with open-space advocates like those behind Goleta’s Nov. 6 ballot initiative, Measure G. According to the proponents, the measure would require voter approval before the city could rezone certain agricultural parcels larger than 10 acres — with Bishop Ranch the largest such parcel, by far.

At an Oct. 17 forum hosted by the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce, Measure G organizers George Relles and Bob Wignot argued that the initiative was necessary to strengthen the city’s General Plan, which they said could be modified “at any time” with a three-vote majority of a future City Council.

Arguing against the initiative were City Councilman Michael Bennett and former Mayor Eric Onnen, who maintained that the fresh news about Bishop Ranch was proof that the city’s planning process works as intended, and does so with the public’s full participation.

Bennett and Onnen also highlighted what they said is a fundamental flaw of the initiative process, that being unknown and unintended consequences. No one knows what the UEC’s long-term strategy is, but Bishop Ranch remains a tempting target for development. While Keston had been thwarted at every turn, I can think of at least two very large Santa Barbara County organizations that could easily afford to buy the property and would be largely exempt from local zoning ordinances. How about you?

4. Decomposed Body Found in Downtown Apartment

After neighbors noticed a buildup of mail outside a West Anapamu Street apartment and no sign of the occupant, Santa Barbara police entered the unit and made a gruesome discovery: The tenant had been dead for as many as three weeks.

October temperatures have been toasty and the apartment was closed up tightly. Fans of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation can connect the dots.

Police say foul play was not suspected. The name of the 50-year-old victim has not been released.

5. Shark-Infested Waters? Despite Increase in Sightings, Experts Say They Can Explain

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton and I will admit that we never get tired of Shark Week. Based on our traffic, neither do you.

After a rash of great white shark sightings near the Santa Barbara Harbor over the last few months, we asked reporter Gina Potthoff to see what she could find out about any patterns or habits that might explain their presence in near-shore waters. The assignment, we told her, was better than working for a living. After all, we’re “talkin’ ‘bout sharkin’!”

Although she declined to go in the water, she gamely set about interviewing local authorities and experts, among them Jennifer Caselle, research biologist at UCSB’s Marine Science Institute; Mick Kronman, harbor operations manager with the City of Santa Barbara Waterfront Department; and Santa Barbara City College marine biology instructor Michelle Paddack.

The speculation ranged from a bit of binging to bulk up before the sharks swim to Hawaii for winter breeding to great white shark populations rebounding from severe overfishing. Perhaps the most plausible reason came from Caselle, who suggested that there are simply more opportunities for people to catch a glimpse — however fleeting — of the famed fins slicing through the water.

“More and more people are enjoying the water now,” she told Gina. “More people are surfing. More people are getting into stand-up paddling now. Now anyone can report it.”

So, you see? It’s a beautiful day, the beaches are open and people are having a wonderful time ...

                                                                  •        •        •

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