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Local News

Mountain Bikers Recall Narrow Escape from White Fire

Trio from Southern California were on the Buckhorn Trail when flames started closing in around them

When Bill Tugurian and two friends set off on an “epic” mountain bike ride Monday morning, they had no way of knowing how intense the experience would become.

After tackling the challenging Buckhorn Road, the trio from Southern California — Tugurian, Will Terry and Adam Benham — found themselves alone in the backcountry, with flames from the fast-moving White Fire closing in around them.

Three mountain bikers were highly relieved to see emergency personnel show up to rescue them from the flames of the White Fire. (Bill Tugurian)
Three mountain bikers were highly relieved to see emergency personnel show up to rescue them from the flames of the White Fire. (Bill Tugurian photo)

“We’re going to get out of here,” Tugurian said to himself, realizing the danger they were in.

Tugurian remembers seeing the sun, a vague outline through the smoke and ash, hanging above the burning ridgeline.

The White Fire broke out at about 2:30 p.m. Monday, and had burned 1,800 acres by Tuesday morning.

The trio had driven up from Southern California — Terry is stationed at Point Mugu Naval Base, Tugurian lives in Santa Monica and Benham in Los Angeles — in search of the daunting Buckhorn Trail.

It’s listed on the International Mountain Biking Association’s website as one of its “Epic Rides”, with 3,900 feet of elevation gain and steep, single-track descents.

“We didn’t know just how epic it would be,” Tugurian told Noozhawk over the phone from his home in Santa Monica on Tuesday.

The men met while volunteering for Mountain Bike Unit, a group that patrols the Santa Monica Mountains on behalf of the National Park Service, California State Parks and the Mountain Resource Conservation Area.

They had just finished training two weeks ago, part of which had volunteers listen to fire captains talk about how quickly wildfires can move.

That knowledge would turn out to be invaluable.

The three riders started their day started by parking at the Lower Oso Day Use Area off of Paradise Road. They rode about 12 miles, and eventually hit Buckhorn Road. About two hours into the ride, they made it to the crest of the trail at about 2:30 p.m.

That’s when they spotted the fire beneath them.

“It was a ways away, about five or six miles, but we’d all been trained about how quickly fire can move,” Tugurian said.

One of the guys had brought an “old beat-up Blackberry,” he said, which was the only device able to get service there. They reported that they’d seen a vegetation fire to a dispatcher in Angeles National Forest, where they often rode.

The fire began to grow larger, so the group stopped, called again, and were transferred to the Los Padres National Forest dispatch.

They could see the fire, they told the dispatcher, and they needed advice on where it was and what to do.

She told them the fire was in the White Rock Day-Use Area, still some distance away, so the group decided to make a break for it down the Santa Cruz Trail, which Tugurian called “technical and slow going.”

But the closer they got, the more they seemed to be intersecting with the fire.

About a half-mile from Upper Oso Campground, they were overwhelmed by smoke all around them. The campground, which had been packed when they left two hours earlier, was deserted.

“We knew it had been evacuated,” he said.

The fire had jumped the road and was raging around the campground, preventing the men from getting to their vehicle.

Tugurian recalled the heat they felt while riding down that road with the flames on both sides of them. 

“The intensity of it is something you can’t appreciate unless you’re there,” he said.

After going on awhile, they decided they’d be safer going back the way they came. As the phone’s battery was dying, they called 9-1-1 this time.

“We said, ‘Listen, there’s three of us and we’ve probably got about 40 minutes before this thing goes up in smoke and we’re dead,’” he recalled.

When the group got back up a steeper portion of the trail near the campground, Tugurian said, they started doing things they knew could help. They began refilling their water bottles in case they had to make a run for it. They also used a deflated yellow inner tube and yellow ponchos found at the campsite earlier to wave at airplanes doing water drops overhead.

“The airplanes would tip their wings, indicating they saw us,” he said. “That was huge.”

Relieved that they’d been seen, Tugurian said they watched as three sides of the canyon above them became fully engulfed in flames.

“One ridge to the west, fire was coming over the top,” he said.

The riders were waiting for rescue crews as the flames moved closer, and “the whole time I thought, ‘This is not going to be my day,’” Tugurian said.

After about 45 minutes, a firefighter and a sheriff’s deputy pulled up in a vehicle, helped the men load up their bikes and took them down to the day-use area.

“It was a pretty good sight to see those guys,” he said. “We were pretty happy to get out of there.”

The fire on the road near Upper Oso had somewhat dissipated by that time, but Tugurian remembers embers glowing on the road.

When they arrived at Lower Oso, Tugurian saw firefighters working and figured his car had been destroyed, but his Toyota 4-Runner was untouched.

The group drove out of the backcountry, stopping in for tacos at Super Rica Taqueria in Santa Barbara before heading back south.

The Los Padres dispatcher called them while they were driving on Highway 101 to make sure they were OK, Tugurian said, adding that all of the personnel who helped rescue them Monday were “terrific.”

“It was harrowing, that’s for sure,” he said. “We knew that every decision we made at that point was going to be pretty important.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper 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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