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Looking Back at the Tea Fire, One Month Later

The focus has turned to the erosion problem in the burn area, and the investigation continues.

It’s a cool morning at Fire Station 7 in the foothills of Santa Barbara, and Santa Barbara City Fire public information officer John Ahlman is ruminating over the recent news that officials have declared fire season a year-round phenomenon.

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Jute matting is fastened to a charred hillside to help prevent erosion. The bare dirt on steep slopes presents a huge risk of flooding. (Michelle J. Wong / Noozhawk photo)
“From my experience, I could have started preaching that 30 years ago,” the former fire chief said. A veteran of wildfires for nearly 40 years, Ahlman has seen blazes in the cold winter months, the wet spring months and the high-risk summer and fall months. Since that proclamation, the county has entered into the “low risk” phase of the year, acknowledging that a fire still could break out if the conditions are right.

Saying it now may sound like preaching to the choir, but fire has always been a part of Southern California climate and ecology. Sequoia tree seeds, for instance, require bare dirt to germinate, and have relied on fire to clear that space on the ground for them.

Native tribes are said to have set prescribed burns back in the prehistoric days to help with food production and to reduce the fuel for fires they knew were going to happen.

Those facts are of no comfort, however, to the Sycamore Canyon residents and neighbors who took the brunt of last month’s Tea Fire. After taking a few turns on Coyote Road up to Mountain Drive, Ahlman stops to point out a blackened vista of charred trees and sooty earth. Sundowner winds drove the flames that started just above from the Tea Gardens on Nov. 13, into the canyon below. 

“It was almost like the Sycamore Fire,” he said, recalling the blaze that started in 1977 in the same general area when someone’s kite wrapped on power lines, causing sparks that ignited the foliage.

Unlike the relatively small Sycamore Fire, though, the Tea Fire ranged to nearly 2,000 acres, pushed by winds and aided by dry conditions. By the time Ahlman made it to the area from Goleta that evening, he found himself dodging embers in his two-seater smart car, the only vehicle he had available. The smoke was so thick, he said, he could barely make out the road.

In the days after the last of the Tea Fire was put out, Ahlman said, it was a challenge to get exact numbers on the structures burned (210 destroyed, nine damaged). Some houses burned while others remained relatively unscathed. Stone houses were destroyed while wooden ones remained upright.

“Here’s an example of the kind of house that could survive that fire,” he said, pointing to a nearby home. Its flame-resistant construction, low and succulent landscaping, and, most importantly, the brush-free space around it made all the difference. That, and a space wide enough for a fire engine to park.

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“People say, ‘This house survived, but that one didn’t; it’s a miracle,’” Ahlman said. “But a lot of times it’s not a miracle.” A lot of times it’s firefighters.

What he considers a miracle is that Lance and Carla Hoffman were able to make it to Station 7 from their house, a rented cottage quite a ways away by winding road. The Hoffmans, now recovering, are probably the most severely injured by the Tea Fire. At this point, Ahlman’s still not sure what route they took. Either way, it’s a long trip.

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Santa Barbara City Fire public information officer John Ahlman reflects on the Tea Fire’s effects on the area. (Michelle J. Wong / Noozhawk photo)
“(Lance) was in very bad shape when they got to Station 7,” Ahlman said. “Sometimes, when you’ve got that adrenaline, you just do what you need to do.”

The pair were treated at the station before being taken to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, then to the UC Irvine Regional Burn Center.

Now, a month and several rains later, the focus has turned to the significant erosion problem presented by the bare dirt on steep slopes. A heavy enough rain and neighborhoods along Santa Barbara’s lower east side will be flooded. Recent rains already have resulted in road closures and small landslides.

County Flood Control and local residents have been racing to do what they can before the winter weather takes over. Sandbags are lining the entrances to many of the homes in the neighborhoods, and jute matting is being fastened to the hillside to hold it together. Streams are cleared, debris racks installed, hydromulch applied — and fingers crossed.

“The entire watershed and downstream system of Sycamore Creek is our main concern,” Flood Control’s Tom Fayram said.

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“People say, ‘This house survived, but that one didn’t; it’s a miracle,’” Santa Barbara City Fire public information officer John Ahlman says. “But a lot of times it’s not a miracle.” A lot of times it’s firefighters. (Michelle J. Wong / Noozhawk photo)
Meanwhile, the investigation into the cause of the Tea Fire continues. Since Santa Barbara City College‘s announcement that nine of the 10 individuals suspected of starting the fire were from that school, precious little, if anything else has been confirmed by authorities.

Instead, rumors and speculation in the community continue to circulate as to who the individuals were, and why their names have not been released. Residents are demanding punishment, while some of those affected are calling for clearer heads.

“There certainly was a lot of finger-pointing,” said Scott Craig, Westmont College media relations manager. After the sheriff’s revelation in November that the people responsible for the blaze were from some local school, Westmont’s name, because of the college’s proximity to the fire’s point of origin, came up.

“There was a certain degree of carelessness, but there was no malicious intent, so it’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out,” Craig said.

The college suffered extensive damage to its campus, including its physics and math buildings and residence halls. Fourteen faculty homes were burned. According to Craig, Westmont President Gayle Beebe’s house was barely saved.

Still, Craig said, with the help of the community, the college is moving on.

“The outpouring of support from the local community, it really helps in these difficult times, in the rebuilding process,” he said.

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