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Sally Cappon: Horror of Painted Cave Fire Rekindled 25 Years Later

Fast-moving wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes and structures and killed one person

Flames from the Painted Cave Fire in 1990 created an eerie scene. The fast-moving blaze destroyed more than 600 homes and structures, and killed one woman.
Flames from the Painted Cave Fire in 1990 created an eerie scene. The fast-moving blaze destroyed more than 600 homes and structures, and killed one woman. (Keith Cullom file photo)

It was a night of horror.

Twenty-five years ago this week, the Painted Cave Fire swept through our neighborhood.

In just a few hours, hundreds of homes and structures lay in ruins.

That last week in June 1990 had been unbearably hot in our area just west of Santa Barbara, where Old San Marcos Road knifes north into the foothills.

On Wednesday, June 27, the temperature soared to 109 degrees, an all-time record for the normally spring-like city. A fierce wind blew from the northwest.

Many residents sought relief at the beaches.

At 6:02 p.m., all hell broke loose.

At first, we weren’t too worried, even after a green U.S. Forest Service truck roared up Old San Marcos Road and we saw smoke up our canyon. We gathered casually with neighbors in the middle of the street as we did to watch past fires.

 
This one, though, behaved differently. After watching for a few minutes, I said to a neighbor, “It’s probably stupid but I think I’ll pack up a few things.”

We grabbed photos and other prized possessions and threw them in suitcases (today I’d use pillowcases).

Tossing suitcases in the back of the pickup, we watched as orange-brown smoke billowed down the canyon, and frantic owners led horses down the street.

A news photographer ran by, cameras flapping. A Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputy with a bullhorn shouted for us to evacuate.

We ignored him as we packed last-minute items, leaving uneaten Chinese takeout on the kitchen table.

The deputy came through a second time, more insistent.

I left in our Chevy Blazer after agreeing to meet my husband and son at a friend’s house in Hope Ranch. Surely a wildfire couldn’t jump a six-lane freeway.

As motorists poured in from side streets, I obediently followed an officer’s orders to turn right on Cathedral Oaks Road.

Otherwise, traffic laws be damned. On University Drive, when a nervous driver failed to turn south onto Patterson Avenue as a dozen cars lined up behind, I turned left from the right turn lane.

Reaching Hope Ranch, we found the fire had jumped Highway 101, igniting the Philadelphia House, a popular restaurant on Hollister Avenue.

My husband, driving our motor home with a physically incapacitated neighbor, had also arrived.

I shrieked at the fire, “Stop following us!”

A charred car sits outside a burned-out home after the Painted Cave Fire swept through the area on July 27, 1990. (Keith Cullom file photo)
A charred car sits outside a burned-out home after the Painted Cave Fire swept through the area on July 27, 1990. (Keith Cullom file photo)

Our then-teenage son, Chris, driving the pickup with our two dogs, got shunted west at a roadblock. Where was he?

Halfway down Las Palmas Drive through Hope Ranch, our only way out, Mother Nature finally cooperated. The wind changed.

Santa Barbara’s summer marine layer materialized. We were safe. So was Chris, staying with friends in Goleta.

Returning to our somber street early the next morning, we met neighbors, all with the same question, “Did we make it?”

Our house stood. Others didn’t.

Stories were poignant. A young man cradled a mailbox, the only thing left from the home he was house-sitting.

A woman sobbed beside her burned-out VW with all her valuables, stranded where it ran out of gas.

Friends who couldn’t make it back from the beach watched as houses burned.

Entire neighborhoods looked like a blackened war zone, chimneys poking up like sentinels. Whole blocks were reduced to rubble.

Other places, one or two houses stood.

One woman died.

Curiously, every one of the six churches and one synagogue in the area survived.

Twenty-five years later, homes are rebuilt. Bougainvillea has returned. Only an occasional empty pad recalls the night of horror.

Could it happen again?

As June 27 looms and sundowners blow and things heat up in a land parched by drought, I remember and wonder.

Noozhawk contributing writer Sally Cappon is an author and local freelance writer. Contact her at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are her own.

An aerial photo shows some of the devastation left in the wake of the Painted Cave Fire in 1990. (Keith Cullom file photo)
An aerial photo shows some of the devastation left in the wake of the Painted Cave Fire in 1990. (Keith Cullom file photo)

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