Cave Fire
Face to face with the Cave Fire. (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk photo)

What a week.

Thanksgiving had a much deeper meaning this year after Santa Barbara County’s South Coast dodged not one, not two, but at least three major catastrophes in back-to-back-to-back days and nights.

According to our Google Analytics, there were 270,086 of you reading Noozhawk this past week, a traffic jam not seen since the week after the deadly Jan. 9, 2018, flash flooding and debris flows in Montecito.

These Best of Bill columns are compilations of the Top 5 stories you were reading over the previous seven days, usually accompanied by my sardonic commentary at no extra charge. When major news events dominate the cycle, I often will combine those stories into one item because they’re so intertwined.

This time, however, nine of our Top 10 stories were associated with the Cave Fire — the exception being No. 7, “BizHawk: The Daisy Opens to Brighten State Street in Downtown Santa Barbara.” The Top 5 stories seemed more distinctive so I gave them their own shot at glory.

We know you rely on Noozhawk for accurate, reliable and prompt local news, especially in times of crisis and emergency. Once again, Team Noozhawk — meaning managing editor Giana Magnoli with the assistance of executive editor Tom Bolton, North County editor Janene Scully, reporters Brooke Holland and Josh Molina, and contributors and photographers Ray Ford, Ryan Cullom and Peter Hartmann — came through in the clutch.

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1. Acreage Jumps to 4,100 in Wind-Driven Cave Fire in Mountains Above Santa Barbara

The Cave Fire erupted atop the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara in late afternoon Nov. 25, transfixing South Coast residents who watched as high winds whipped the flames along the upper ridgeline and down the slopes.

As our Giana Magnoli first reported, the wildfire ignited around 4:15 p.m. along East Camino Cielo near Painted Cave Road, on Los Padres National Forest land east of Highway 154.

As firefighters raced up the mountain, the blaze made its run downhill, burning — eerily — in a lot of the footprint of the 1990 Painted Cave Fire that destroyed more than 470 homes and killed one foothill resident.

The gusty winds were fierce, but unlike 1990, they weren’t as powerful or sustained. Nevertheless, the fire hungrily chewed through the 30-year-old chaparral in steep, rugged terrain.

Authorities quickly evacuated the isolated Painted Cave neighborhood, then expanded the mandatory evacuation zone as the fire continued down the mountainside.

Not long after nightfall, residents were ordered out of neighborhoods north of Cathedral Oaks Road/Foothill Road flanking the closed Highway 154. Upper Cienguitas Road just east of the highway was of particular concern. In all, about 6,400 residents were affected.

In spite of wind-driven embers spiraling hundreds of yards, no homes were lost and no injuries were reported.

By daybreak Nov. 26, more than 600 firefighters were working the blaze, which had grown to more than 4,100 acres — 6½ square miles — overnight.

A fleet of aircraft joined the battle the next morning while ground crews made slow progress on containment. It would be another 24 hours before any meaningful chunk could be declared corraled, and Thanksgiving eve before heavy rain arrived with a key assist followed by … snow on Nov. 28.

The cause of the ultimately 4,300-acre fire has not yet been determined, but investigators were combing the scene of its ignition point almost immediately after it began.

To give you a sense of how quickly the fire raged out of control and was threatening Goleta and Santa Barbara’s backyard, watch the nearby time-lapse clip my son, Will, put together.

Soon after he saw the smoke, he started videotaping with his iPhone from his downtown Santa Barbara apartment and continued over the next 3½ hours. It’s unnerving.

(Will Macfadyen / Noozhawk video)

While all of this was going on the night of Nov. 25, hurricane-force winds were pounding Montecito. The Windy app recorded gusts of 84 mph at one point, and scattered power outages were reported throughout the community — but not at my house at #ranchoparragrande for once.

2. Evacuation Information for the Cave Fire Burning Near Santa Barbara

Mask distribution

The Santa Barbara Central Library turned into a distribution center for N95 respiratory masks, which hadn’t really been “a thing” around here since the 2017 Thomas Fire. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

With the Cave Fire bearing down on foothills neighborhoods above Cathedral Oaks Road/Foothill Road, evacuations were ordered around 7 p.m. Nov. 25, less than three hours after the wildfire broke out.

Our very busy Giana Magnoli reported that residents were herded out of a swath of South Coast between North Ontare and Gilbraltar roads to the east in Santa Barbara and North Fairview Avenue to the west in Goleta.

Evacuation warnings were issued for the area south of Cathedral Oaks Road in an area bounded by Highway 154, Calle Real and El Sueno Road, as well as the stretch north of Foothill Road between North Ontare Road all the way into Mission Canyon to the east.

On Nov. 26, the western boundary of the mandatory evacuation zone was pared back to North Patterson Avenue, and authorities lifted all evacuation orders and warnings the morning of Nov. 27.

3. New Worries as Potent Storm Approaches Santa Barbara Area on Heels of Cave Fire

Cave Fire

Remind you of Montecito? (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

In a risky case of good news/bad news, a major storm was forecast to slam the South Coast the night of Nov. 26 and most of Nov. 27.

The good news: The expected heavy rain would help firefighters douse the day-old Cave Fire. Go storm!

The bad news: The predicted inch of rain falling on very steep mountainsides freshly denuded by the wildfire could create dangerous flash flooding and debris flows below. Remember Montecito, anyone?

The precarious conditions — and the truncated time frame — put maximum pressure on Santa Barbara County flood control crews, which were scrambling to assess post-fire infrastructure and watersheds.

Early on Nov. 26, the county Fire Department gave flood control access to the San Antonio Creek debris basin, near Highway 154, and the Maria Ygnacio Creek watershed that also was burned by the fire.

Flood control engineering manager Jon Frye told our Giana Magnoli that crews were cleaning out the debris basin and clearing water channels. Debris racks also may be installed to help.

“A fresh burn area is always going to be a concern,” he said. “We’re going to keep fresh eyes and ears on it.

“The forecast seems to be somewhat temperate, but we all know how a narrow band of high intensity can come through, so we’re going to be paying close attention to everywhere.”

4. Officials Rescind Debris Flow Evacuation Warning Issued for Areas Below Cave Fire

Debris flows evacuation map

Red means a mandatory debris flow evacuation area, yellow means a warning area. Yes, the latter really does include Hope Ranch and other topographical high points. (Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management map)

Late on the night of Nov. 26, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department declared a “debris flow evacuation warning” for a curiously expansive block of the South Coast below the Cave Fire burn area.

As our Tom Bolton reported, the Sheriff’s Department said “public safety officials have determined that there is a risk for potential debris flows in and below the Cave Fire burn area.”

Sheriff’s officials defined the warning zone as Cathedral Oaks Road/Foothill Road on the north to the Pacific Ocean nearly four miles away to the south, and between Las Positas Road to the east and Patterson Avenue and Anderson Lane on More Mesa to the west.

Included in the warning were Hope Ranch — Hope Ranch?! — and the aforementioned More Mesa, as well as 600-foot Campanil Hill, the Santa Barbara Golf Club, La Cumbre Plaza and Five Points Shopping Center.

Also included were the 3300 to 3500 blocks of State Street between San Roque and North Ontare roads, which loops in Loreto Plaza. I’m guessing that section made the cut apparently based on San Roque Creek, which cuts diagonally through the area.

Oddly, however, the upper San Roque Creek watershed was excluded, meaning the San Roque neighborhood downstream from Stevens Park, and the park itself, were omitted from both the mandatory and the voluntary danger zones.

How does that work? Do debris flows hopscotch around using magic, or is there geological and topographical science behind them? Asking for a friend.

Actually, I’m asking for the community, which should be demanding that emergency management officials provide specific answers as to why they chose to include so many impenetrable neighborhoods. It serves no public safety or good if fingers are just being wanded across a map to fit a narrative.

Fortunately, unlike with the absurd, wildfire map-based voluntary evacuation zone that proved so deadly in Montecito in 2018, there were no major instances of flooding or debris flows this time, and the warnings were lifted the next morning.

5. Daylight Brings Tankers, Helicopters Into Fight Against Cave Fire

Cave Fire

We love the sight of Phos-Chek in the morning. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

Several night-flying helicopters assisted with water drops and structure protection on the first night of the wind-whipped Cave Fire, but the air cavalry — air tankers dropping Phos-Chek fire retardant and a fleet of water-dropping helicopters — was out in force just after daybreak Nov. 26.

As the winds abated, the aerial assault enabled firefighters to get about 10 percent containment of the wildfire, much of which was burning on steep slopes that were largely inaccessible for ground crews and bulldozers.

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Last Year on Noozhawk

What was our most-read story this time last year? ‘Structure of Merit’ Status Reversed for Santa Barbara’s Old Casa de Sevilla Building.

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Bill Macfadyen’s Story of the Week

Cut me some slack, it’s a holiday week: The Most Hilarious Wildlife Photos of 2019.

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Best of Bill’s Instagram

My beautiful niece, Caroline Gaylord, was the star of my Instagram feed this past week. I’m sorry I missed her presentation to Houston society, but she had a big cheering section rooting her on at the Houston Country Club #debutanteball.

                                                                 •        •        •

Watch It

After all these years, I’m just now finding out that my best dad moments were captured on videotape. It must have been my son, Will.

(You Betcha video)

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If you value dependable local reporting, will you support Noozhawk today?
Yes, I’ll set up a monthly donation today!
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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at wmacfadyen@noozhawk.com, follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk and Instagram: @bill.macfadyen, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

A dark-haired man in glasses with a beard and a mustache smiles at the camera

William M. Macfadyen, Noozhawk Publisher

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