The massive fire that left the unfinished Sierra Madre Apartments in ruins Friday morning is considered suspicious, and the UCSB Police Department is offering a $10,000 reward for information.
Santa Barbara County firefighters reported 60- to 70-foot flames during the blaze, which destroyed five structures at the corner of Storke Road and Whittier Drive in Goleta, where UC Santa Barbara is building a student housing complex.
UCSB Police are taking the lead on the investigation on the fires, which were considered suspicious from the start.
Police have initiated a full investigation with cooperation from the UCSB fire marshal, the District Attorney’s Arson Task Force, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, according to UCSB Police.
UCSB officers arrived to the scene to find flames on the inside of the apartment building and two construction trailers fully engulfed in flames, police said in a statement Friday.
The call came in at 3:29 a.m. and the fire was quickly upgraded to call in 10 engines. Crews knocked down the fire by 4:30 a.m., but there were multiple flare-ups midday on Friday so the area smelled strongly of smoke into the afternoon.
A small brush fire started near the destroyed complex building and a utility box was smoking around noon, causing County Fire crews to return to the scene.
Residents, even those who lived a few miles away, reported chunks of charcoal and embers flying into yards from the fire, finding them in the morning. Passersby kept stopping to look at the destroyed buildings and to ask the UCSB police officers about the fire.
They won’t divulge anything about the investigation but confirmed the arson task force is involved now.
There were five separate fires at the same time, which included the massive flames eating away at the apartment complex frame, three construction trailers and an abandoned building from the former Ocean Meadows Golf Course, which is adjacent to the construction site.
The three-story building is a housing project for UC Santa Barbara and was scheduled to open in the fall of 2015. The Sierra Madre Apartments will have 115 apartments to house 515 students and another 36 units for students, faculty and staff with families.
“The damage and schedule impact is still being assessed by the construction management team,” UCSB Public Affairs news director George Foulsham said Friday.
He said the project broke ground late last year and it’s likely that the fire damage will delay the completion date, perhaps up to a year.
There were other structures on the site which weren’t damaged, Foulsham said.
Construction was slightly behind schedule, according to the UCSB housing blog, but the third floor had framing up as well as roofing on one of the family unit buildings.
Ten engines from the County Fire and Santa Barbara City Fire departments responded to the scene and were assisted by the Sheriff’s Department and UCSB Police. Foulsham said the university is grateful for the response — which put out the fire in an hour.
Investigators have been on the scene, and Santa Barbara County most likely will request a state investigator since the fires were on UCSB property.
“At this point, officially it’s suspicious,” fire engineer Russ Sechler said, adding that it’s generally suspicious when fires this large aren’t reported until they’re fully in flames — no matter what time of day, the fire department usually gets alerted quickly. “It’s possible nobody could see given it was early in the morning, but most of the time we’ll be alerted no matter what time it is.”
UCSB Police ask anyone with information to call the department at 805.893.3446 or the Crimestoppers hotline at 877.800.9100.
"The cause of the fire is still being determined but witnesses reported seeing a white male leaving the construction site at the time the fires started, then fleeing west toward the UCSB North Campus Open Space," police said in a statement Friday afternoon.
The UCSB Police Department is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people who caused these fires, and will divide the reward if multiple people come forward.