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Tuesday, March 19 , 2019, 10:58 pm | Partly Cloudy 52º


The Gap Fire Up Close: ‘I Was Just Praying for Peace with Our Family’

When Richie Derobles saw a puff of smoke coming from the Goleta foothills, he had no idea he would soon be battling the flames head on at his family's ranch.

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Richie Derobles, 20, is a Santa Barbara City College student whose family has lived on a 40-acre ranch in Winchester Canyon for 10 years. Just weeks ago they were battling flames 30-40 feet high while protecting their home, 10-acre avocado orchard and pet llama.

How long has your family been growing avocados?
Actually, we haven’t been in the process of farming it yet. We have a small orchard so we’re still kind of trying to get the whole growing part of it down, just kind of nailing it down to a science. But, we planted them probably six or seven years ago and so ever since then we’ve been taking care of them and trying to make them grow.

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Safely back in his corral, Nicholas the llama acts as if nothing ever happened. (Mollie Helmuth / Noozhawk photo)
And you said you have llamas?
One llama, Nicholas. My stepdad (cardiologist Mike Triplet) had a stepfather who was Peruvian; so that kind of culture kind of caught up with him a little bit and he thought it would be pretty neat to have llamas. He thought you could use them as pack animals and have them carry stuff, but (the llama) turned out to be pretty useless. It’s pretty much a pet.

When did you realize the fire was happening?
Probably, when did it start … Tuesday? Well, Tuesday I actually saw a little plume of smoke coming off the mountain and I actually thought some farmer was doing a controlled burn, like burning some old trees or something.

Then later that night when I was fishing I actually saw flames. I was like, OK, this is a fire. I called my stepdad to let him know and he said it was really far away from us, don’t worry about it. And then Wednesday was the really gnarly day when we actually started getting worried that it was coming toward us.

During that day did you all stick around just in case it got bigger?
Yeah, we stuck around. We basically continued on with our normal lives, kind of watching but not being too worried about it. But I guess once it started jumping into our canyon that’s when we started getting worried. They were issuing evacuations all around us.

How did the evacuations work?
In our canyon the firefighters were already down there plotting out where the fire was going. Once it started getting close they were like, you guys can’t stay here tonight. You need to get out of here because this is going to burn right through.

So you thought it would burn everything?
Yeah, so that’s when we had to leave. And, actually, we have three houses on the property; one is still in the process of being built, so we were really worried those houses would be burned. Especially this one guest house, we built it and it’s really nice. We worked really hard on it and my stepdad was especially worried about that. That was a good four years of work.

Did you have to evacuate the lama?
Well, actually we couldn’t catch him. So, we just opened the gates and let him go. He was safe, he came back. We actually had a horse, too, and we managed to get him and the Humane Society took him.

Were family members calling and checking in to see how everything was going?
Yeah, actually, my grandma was always calling and checking in, and same with my mom. She was gone, she didn’t want to be anywhere near it. I have a little baby sister, too (Mikala). (My mom) took her and my other brother and sister (Wynter and Ellie).

Tell us some of your thoughts while the fire was getting closer.
I was really praying the entire time. My stepdad is a really fast thinker, so he was already thinking, ‘OK, I guess the house is burned down already, you know. I’m going to have to pull a trailer up there, live in a trailer and build a new house.

I was just praying for peace with our family, and that the fire didn’t burn down any of our hard work. My stepdad put a good 10 years of his life into that place.

When you packed up, what did you bring with you?
Mainly just important stuff like my surfboard. My stepdad grabbed his briefcase, all his checks, his laptop. We also grabbed all our rifles because those are all really expensive and we need them. My mom (Esther Derobles) grabbed a bunch of pictures.

When the fire was finally under control and people were allowed to go back to their houses, and you saw what the fire had burned, what were your thoughts?
Actually, we stayed through the majority of it, my stepdad and I. We were just evacuated that one night, and that was the night most of our property was burned. By Friday night, I remember because it was the Fourth of July, we were up there all day, basically through till Saturday morning, watching the fire, wetting down everything.

What was that like?
There were some points where I was thinking I just wanted to leave — I didn’t want to stay up there. I was so scared for our lives and my stepdad is a stubborn guy. He wanted to protect it. He didn’t want to lose anything, and I was like, “We have got to get out of here!”

The night we stayed, it was burning probably 50 yards away from our house. And the flames at some points were like 30-40 feet high. They were also shooting embers everywhere. I stayed up all night.

My stepdad had a plan because he was studying how the firefighters were doing their thing. We actually had a little fire truck set up — we had a flatbed truck and we threw in a 250-gallon water tank with a pump and a hose connected to it. That was pretty cool and came into use.

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Quick thinking by Mike Triplet and his stepson, Richie Derobles — and a makeshift firetruck — helped the men save a couple of ranch buildings. (Mollie Helmuth / Noozhawk photo)
Is there anything you wish you would have done beforehand, had you known a fire was coming?
There’s probably nothing we could have done except basically what we did. Wet everything down, irrigate the trees, make sure everything was moist so it didn’t catch fire.

What about the firefighters’ efforts made you feel that might be something you want to do?
They are kind of considered heroes. Just watching them work together — they had a little brotherhood thing going. I like doing team stuff — I used to wrestle in high school, and it was a really close bond because we were working hard together and I figured this is kind of the same thing because they are working their butts off trying to contain this fire as a group.

So now you are cleaning up. Was your barn completely destroyed?
Oh, yeah, it’s gone, it basically exploded. There is nothing left. We had like two couches in there, a stove and a fireplace. We are pretty much done; we cleaned up everything we could. All that was left was the roof, like an aluminum roof and some plaster, the fireplace and some melted drywall.

What was the loss to your avocado orchard?
We only lost like eight trees, out of close to 300 trees.

How’s your family doing now?
We’re a lot better now that everything is cleaned up. The other loss we had was a huge water tank, a 10,000-gallon tank. It just melted and shot water everywhere, which was good.

Everything is pretty much back to normal again except for all the brush that was burned. The ranch kind of looks like a desert. But it’s not going to burn again for awhile. The thing we have to worry about now is landslides, the soil is really loose.

Has that been a problem for you?
Yeah, actually the year the La Conchita landslide happened (in 2005) we had two big landslides on our property. Luckily it didn’t destroy anything but it took out one of our roads and a bulldozer came over and plowed it out.

So without all the vegetation that might be a bigger problem?
Yeah, it’s probably going to be a way bigger problem. They have this technique, though, where they have planes go and drop seeds so grass will start growing and it puts more roots into the ground and everything will hold stronger.

Derobles and Triplet have been busy restoring some of the damage from the Gap Fire. In all, however, Derobles says he is thankful for what turned out to be a minor disaster.

Noozhawk intern Mollie Helmuth can be reached at [email protected]

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