Brush fire
Bombs away on the Zaca Creek Ranch. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

It’s been a few weeks since my last monthly “Lunch with the Publisher” and my mind has been wandering and wondering about the next one. For some reason I’m thinking Grilled Salmon Banh Mi, if you know where I mean.

If you’d like to be one of three Hawks Club members I’ll take on a lunch date later this month, click here to leave your name and telephone number with Noozhawk marketing assistant Collin Nathanson.

We’ll conduct the random drawing next week, but the offer is limited to those at our Red-Tailed Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk membership levels. Click here to become a member, or to upgrade.

These #noozhawkeats lunches have become pretty popular, with several dozen of you entering the drawings each time. The conversations are candid and I really get a lot out of them — while you at least get a free lunch!

You’ve also been getting a lot from a very newsy Noozhawk this past week. According to our Google Analytics, there were 176,551 of you reading our writing over the last seven days.

What follows is my weekly Best of Bill column, a compilation of our Top 5 most-read stories of the week with my own brand of commentary for good measure. In other words, this is an opinion column, not a news story.

1. Vegetation Fire Blackens 200 Acres East of Highway 101 in Buellton Area

Our Giana Magnoli was busy when I got back to my office after a long day of meetings the afternoon of Sept. 9. The chatter was nonstop on the emergency scanner and she was juggling phone calls and texts with emergency officials.

During a pause in the action, she told me there were multiple grass fires burning on ranch land along Highway 101 just north of Buellton. I had a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach: Close friends own the stunning Zaca Creek Ranch on that stretch.


Phos-Chek lookout. (Conor Patrick photo)

The fires — at least four of them — were reported at 3:15 p.m. and were said to be burning just off the northbound side of the highway. It was hot and it was breezy, and four sets of flames soon became one racing up the hillside to the east.

As Giana reported, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department was responding with full force, including about 600 firefighters, hand crews, five air tankers, three helicopters and a fleet of bulldozers.

Evacuations were ordered and authorities closed the highway’s northbound lanes between Highways 246 and 154, which sure did a number on the afternoon commute.

I texted my daughter, Kirsten, to see if she could find out from Conor Patrick what was going on at his family’s ranch.

“It’s bad,” he texted back. Followed later by, “I’m melting.”

Soon after, I saw for myself when Giana posted a photo of the main house with sinister black smoke billowing up from the canyon behind it.

Fortunately, the ranch’s horses, cattle, alpacas and llamas had been herded to safety, and quick work by firefighters and ranch hands kept the fire safely away from structures, there and on other nearby ranches.

The blaze eventually grew to about 200 acres as it headed east toward Ballard Canyon, but coastal fog moved in overnight and helped stop the forward progress. Containment reached 60 percent by the next evening.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, but California Highway Patrol reports suggest a malfunctioning vehicle may have kicked off sparks as it drove past on the highway.

2. Report on Conception Dive Boat Disaster Confirms Crew Was Asleep When Fire Broke Out

Conception dive boat

There’s nothing left. (KTLA-TV News screen shot)

If the Sept. 2 Conception dive boat tragedy left us adrift with our emotions, loss and questions last week, this past week has been surprisingly productive as the investigation of the deadly disaster turns to cold, hard facts.

Nearly all of Noozhawk’s reporting on the Conception ended up in our Top 10 list of most-read stories, but no single story was able to catch the audience reach of the Buellton wildfire noted above.

As our Giana Magnoli first reported Sept. 12, a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report outlined a timeline of the fire aboard the 75-foot vessel, and the actions of its crew before it sank while anchored off Santa Cruz Island, about 28 miles south of Santa Barbara.

In all, 33 passengers and one crew member were killed in the catastrophe, while five of the crew managed to escape.

The NTSB report pulled no punches in concluding that the Santa Barbara-based boat had no one on watch at the time of the fire. Further, it said the five survivors had all been asleep in their quarters off the bridge on the top deck.

Truth dive boat

That’s a lot of FBI agents. (Paul Goodwin photo)

The report says there were two “locally sounding smoke alarms” in the bunk room on the bottom deck, where the 34 victims were, but they were not centrally wired to notify anyone or anywhere of a problem.

According to the report, once the crew up top discovered the fire, they tried in vain to reach the bunkroom’s exits on the main deck, but the ladder and emergency escape hatch were blocked by the roaring inferno.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the Coroner’s Bureau believes all 34 victims died of smoke inhalation before the fire reached them. I pray to God he’s correct because the terror and panic in a confined, pitch black, smoke-filled tomb is too horrific to contemplate.

Brown called the Conception catastrophe the “worst disaster in terms of loss of human life in the recorded history of our county” — eclipsing the 23 killed in the Jan. 9, 2018, flash flooding, mud and debris flows in Montecito.

Multiple local, state and federal agencies are investigating the cause and origin of the fire, which has not yet been determined. The final NTSB report is still 12 to 18 months away.

In other significant developments since I last wrote:

» All 34 bodies have been recovered.

» After several days of weather-related delays, salvage crews on Sept. 12 raised the Conception’s charred wreckage from the bottom of Platts Harbor on the island’s north shore.

» Search warrants were served at the offices of Truth Aquatics, the boat’s owner and operator, and investigators from the NTSB; the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the U.S. Coast Guard, among others, have scoured the Truth, a sister vessel of the Conception and similar in design.

» Attorneys for Truth Aquatics filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court under a pre-Civil War provision of maritime law aimed at limiting its liability for personal injury or death.

» The Coast Guard issued an urgent bulletin directing owners and operators of similar vessels to review safety protocols.

» Hundreds of people gathered at Chase Palm Park for a Sept. 6 vigil honoring the dead.

» Our Tom Bolton was able to piece together short anecdotes and biographies of many of the victims. May they all rest in peace.

3. Solvang Council Asks New City Manager to Resign Just Months into Job

David Gassaway

Consider yourself lucky. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

The three-ring circus otherwise known as the Solvang City Council has claimed its latest victim: City manager David Gassaway, who resigned at the Sept. 9 council meeting — at the request of the council.

That would be the same City Council that hired him on a unanimous vote earlier this year.

Gassaway had been on the job all of five months so, clearly, he must have been an awful choice, right?


According to a statement from Mayor Ryan Toussaint, “Gassaway brings a lot of talent to the table with his knowledge and work ethic,” and the parting had nothing to do with his performance.

“The City Council has a different direction for the community, and we mutually agreed that a separation would allow the City Council to achieve its desired outcomes,” he explained.

For those of you having trouble understanding just what those “desired outcomes” are, you’re not alone. The clowns running this show aren’t even sure what they’re doing.

Chip Wullbrandt

Penny for your thoughts. Or a dollar. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

Our Janene Scully and our friends at the Santa Ynez Valley Star had to point out to then-interim city attorney Chip Wullbrandt that the council was required to disclose who had asked for Gassaway’s resignation. Turns out it was Toussaint and Councilmen Chris Djernaes and Daniel Johnson.

Then Wullbrandt himself had to note that the council actually needed someone to at least act as the city manager. The council quickly added an emergency item to an already ridiculously long agenda, and agreed to a series of if/then statements that essentially would hand the job to the last man — or woman — standing.

Four days later it turned out to be administrative services director Xenia Bradford, who had been a candidate for city manager at the time Gassaway was chosen, and who got her shot after the council’s second first choice, public works director Matt van der Linden, passed. Probably a wise decision, that.

The council was really getting into the personnel game at its meeting. It voted to hire Wullbrandt as its contract attorney at an eye-popping rate of $335 an hour and handed a contract extension to new public information officer Kady Fleckenstein, who will now collect some $65,000 over the next four months.

As city attorney, Wullbrandt — a partner in the venerable Santa Barbara law firm of Price, Postel & Parma LLP — will be paid far more than the other applicants for the job had proposed, and more than $100 an hour more than the city attorneys in Buellton, Guadalupe and Lompoc.

What’s more, in July, he billed Solvang an astonishing $74,837, which is an interesting math problem, and not just because it’s more than half the $135,500 the city had budgeted for the entire year. Bear with me here.

July had a total of 23 business days, not counting the Fourth of July, which was a Thursday. Let’s assume Wullbrandt took off for the Independence Day holiday, but worked eight hours the next day and the other 21 weekdays of the month.

I’m a journalist and not a lawyer so you should check my arithmetic, but I believe that works out to 176 hours of dedicated service to Solvang, which means an even higher rate of $420.45 an hour. Man, I’m in the wrong business. We all are.

Evidently that’s cool with the aforementioned Djernaes and Johnson, who recommended Wullbrandt for the permanent position.

“Over the last three months, I think that Chip has done an amazing job, working beyond the call of duty,” said Djernaes, who seems to fancy himself a budget hawk of some kind, as well as a paragon of virtue.

“… He worked far more hours than anybody would expect him to do under a reasonable circumstance, and he had to because, unfortunately, the city was put in a very difficult situation.”

And there he goes again. When Djernaes is not tossing out ethnic slurs, the loquacious freshman councilman seems to have a penchant for casting aspersions and insinuations around the community. It’ll be interesting to see if what goes around, comes around.

4. Potential Power Shut-Off Announced for South Coast Areas Due to Weather Forecast

Like the rest of California, Santa Barbara County has had its share of devastating wildfires sparked by power lines. After the catastrophic losses over the last few years, it really wasn’t surprising when utility companies asked state regulators for permission to pull the plug when conditions are riskiest.

Whether that’s the most satisfying — or the most 21st-century — solution to the explosive confluence of electrical wires, extreme heat, high winds, low humidity and tinder-dry vegetation, it’s the one we’re stuck with now.

And so it was last week when Southern California Edison warned for the first time that South Coast customers might face multiday precautionary power outages, beginning Sept. 6 when temperatures were expected to spike and sundowner winds were forecast to develop.

As our Tom Bolton reported, Edison spokeswoman Sally Jeun said about 4,600 customers were “under consideration” for a public safety electricity shutoff, including residents of unincorporated areas west of Goleta and near Highway 154 along San Marcos Pass.

On Sept. 7, the county Office of Emergency Management said at least 650 Edison customers were powerless in a rural swath running from west of Goleta all the way to Jalama Beach County Park.

It wasn’t clear how long the outage lasted, but Noozhawk did receive scattered reports of other shutoffs of varying lengths.

5. Funk Zone Restaurant, Retail Project Gets Santa Barbara Planning Commission OK

11 Anacapa St.

It’s the Funk Zone. Did you have to ask? (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Even a quick pass through the Funk Zone provides tangible evidence that healthy and vibrant commercial neighborhoods do exist in Santa Barbara. Thanks to a Sept. 5 Planning Commission vote, another unique experience is likely to be added to the mix.

As our Josh Molina first reported, local real estate investor Ray Mahboob intends to renovate a multitenant commercial building he owns at 11 Anacapa St., adding a new restaurant, an outdoor dining deck and retail space, among other things.

His project was before the commission to request a parking modification — for a total of 32 spaces instead of the currently required 46, which would be set aside for valet service during restaurant hours.

The commission granted the adjustment on a unanimous 6-0 vote.

“It will be an improvement to a very dilapidated building down there,” planning commissioner Addison Thompson observed. “The building needs to be renovated and repaired.”

Mahboob said he wants to maintain the unique character of the Funk Zone while continuing its revitalization.

“My No. 1 goal when I first purchasd the property was to keep the look of that façade,” he said. “You couldn’t create that even if you tried to hire an architect and said ‘Create a funky building.’

“People come from all over the world to take photos of this building.”

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Last Year on Noozhawk

What was our most-read story this time last year? Fire Damages Home Under Construction in Santa Barbara Foothills.

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Bill Macfadyen’s Story of the Week

You should have read this before the latest debate: 2020 Presidential Candidates As People I Knew in College.

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Best of Bill’s Instagram

A seriously disgruntled @dodgers fan went to #dodgerstadium in my Instagram feed this past week. The Dodgers won, but until they earn their first #worldseries title in 31 years, consider me neither satisified nor impressed.

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Loreto Plaza

Thanks for coming clean. (Bill Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo via Instagram)

What?! After months of my #weedshaming, someone finally cleaned up the jungle that had swallowed the State Street sidewalk in front of Santa Barbara’s Loreto Plaza? Thank you.

Maybe I should resurrect this feature. Email your own #santabarbaraeyesores suggestions — and photos and street addresses — to me at

                                                                 •        •        •

Watch It

Fellow Alaskan malamute owners will recognize this “enthusiastic” exercise effort. HT to Katrina Kowanda for sharing Kiara’s one-legged workout with me — and you.

YouTube video

(Katrina Kowanda video)

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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at, follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk and Instagram: @bill.macfadyen, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at, and follow him on Instagram: @bill.macfadyen. The opinions expressed are his own.