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For Vern Hall and Other Evacuees, Close Call from Sherpa Fire All a Part of Life in the Mountains

Refugio Canyon resident’s cabin spared near wildfire’s point of origin: ‘I never thought they were going to keep that place from burning,’ he says of firefighters

Donna and Vern Hall’s remote cabin sits high up in Refugio Canyon, with endless views of the Pacific Ocean 1,600 feet below. Thanks to round-the-clock efforts by firefighters, the house was spared any damage from the Sherpa Fire. “This cabin’s been up there all those years, and my biggest fear as long as I’ve been there has always been fire,” Hall says. Click to view larger
Donna and Vern Hall’s remote cabin sits high up in Refugio Canyon, with endless views of the Pacific Ocean 1,600 feet below. Thanks to round-the-clock efforts by firefighters, the house was spared any damage from the Sherpa Fire. “This cabin’s been up there all those years, and my biggest fear as long as I’ve been there has always been fire,” Hall says. (Hall family photo)

Vern Hall was chopping wood outside his cabin on June 15 when he heard a fire engine rolling up in his direction in Refugio Canyon west of Goleta.

He saw smoke coming from up the mountain, and he was soon packing clothes and important papers into his pickup truck.

Another fire was burning in the mountains of Santa Barbara County.

The Sheriff’s Department representative who came to the door had a simple message, “You’re leaving now,” and Hall and his wife, Donna, became the first residents to be evacuated from the Sherpa Fire.

When Hall saw the flames crest the hilltop and head toward his cabin, he believed he had seen the last of his home.

Hall’s life on the South Coast is the epitome of what it is like to have the threat of fire bearing down nearly all year on residential life.

Although his cabin was spared — barely — due to the round-the-clock efforts of firefighters, the close call was another reminder for Hall and mountainside residents like him of the existential dangers of wildfire.

White-bearded and well-tanned, Hall looks like he could be the cowboy version of Anthony Hopkins. Born in Santa Barbara, he’s lived in his cabin, a mile up a dirt road off of Refugio Road, for 13 years.

The Halls can gaze out over the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands from their peaceful paradise 1,600 feet above the bustling life of the rest of the South Coast.

After igniting on the afternoon of June 15 near some buildings at Rancho La Scherpa Christian Conference Center in the 2500 block of Refugio Road, the Sherpa Fire consumed nearly 8,000 acres of Gaviota coast before firefighters got the upper hand.

“This cabin’s been up there all those years, and my biggest fear as long as I’ve been there has always been fire,” Hall told Noozhawk at the Elks Club Lodge 613 in Goleta, where he and his wife were camping out in their travel trailer during the evacuation.

The Halls spent their first night under evacuation at a friend’s place in Santa Barbara’s Mesa neighborhood.

In spite of the ever-present threat of wildfire, Donna and Vern Hall are happiest at their Refugio Canyon home. “Life is good,” Hall says. “Life’s the best it’s ever been.” Click to view larger
In spite of the ever-present threat of wildfire, Donna and Vern Hall are happiest at their Refugio Canyon home. “Life is good,” Hall says. “Life’s the best it’s ever been.” (Hall family photo)

“I was in total shock when I woke up at 6 o’clock in the morning, and they said no structures had been lost,” he said. “I’m in absolute amazement with the job that the firemen did up there.

“I’m so thankful for what those men and women have done up there,” he said. “I never thought they were going to keep that place from burning.”

The vegetation from the nearby Circle Bar B Guest Ranch off Refugio Road up to the top of the hill where the Halls live was spared from the blaze, but so much else, including the hill right across from the Halls’ driveway, was scorched black.

Hall’s run-in with flames by no means began with the Sherpa Fire, however.

In 1990, he lived on La Vista Road just off of Foothill Road on Santa Barbara’s Northside when the Painted Cave Fire broke out.

His house at the time was a “tinder box,” and he recalled hosing down his roof as the flames bore down on him. Almost at the last minute, a burst of santa ana winds redirected it, saving that home, too.

Donna, who grew up on San Marcos Pass, lived through many fires there, he said; despite wood shingles covering her house, it has never burned down.

Even the Halls’ cabin has seen its fair share of scares: Decades before he moved into it, the house was nearly burned down 61 years ago in the Refugio Fire.

The Sherpa Fire, firefighters said, fed on Gaviota chaparral that hadn’t burned for 60-plus years.

“Fire’s something you live with here,” Hall said. “Santa Barbara’s a very arid community.

“That’s just part of living in the area.”

Less than a year after the Tea Fire destroyed 210 homes in Montecito and Santa Barbara, the 2009 Jesusita Fire swept across the Santa Barbara foothills. Numerous other wildfires have threatened and mauled the area before or since.

Despite the constant danger fire poses to the dry, brushy Santa Barbara foothills and Gaviota mountains, the lifestyle those areas afford their residents still suits Hall best.

“I’m really happy to be living up here,” he said.

But as he gets older — his 73rd birthday is quickly approaching — he’s thought about moving on and slowing down.

“I’d like to stay there a couple more years, but chances are I may end up in Hawaii,” he said. “My daughter lives there.

“There’s a good chance I may move. We’ll see.”

But despite the prospects of getting older and the ultimate scare the Sherpa Fire gave him, nothing has yet dampened his spirits.

“Life is good,” he said. “Life’s the best it’s ever been.”

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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