Day-use visitors using an allowed cooking fire started the White Fire that charred almost 2,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara’s backcountry, authorities announced Friday.
The U.S. Forest Service conducted a joint investigation with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Arson Task Force, and determined the fire was started by a cooking fire held in one of the barbecues at the White Rock Day Use area.
“It was determined to be accidental, but it was from a cooking fire in an approved campfire use site,” U.S. Forest Service spokesman Andrew Madsen said.
“We have some of these barbecues on a pole with a little grill, and this person or persons were cooking and when the wind was kicking up, it blew embers into the grass,” Madsen said. “That is the official cause, and because it was accidental, the DA is not going to bring charges.”
The fire scorched 1,984 acres since it started Monday afternoon, and combined firefighting efforts on the ground and from the air have cost an estimated $3.11 million.
The blaze was fully contained by Thursday afternoon, and units were being sent back home.
Thirteen crews, 26 engines and four bulldozers worked Friday to help with hot spots and “mop up” the containment lines.
Madsen, who focuses on fire safety education as a large part of his job, said the fires this year have shown that the messages didn’t sink in for everyone.
“We like to think that our fire education message is resonating with the public. Then we get into this year and think, gosh, we’re failing with our messaging and having fires as a result of this kind of stuff.”
He added: “Just because a fire is allowed doesn’t’ mean it’s the smart thing to do,” especially if the weather is windy, dry and hot, as it was on Monday.
“My concern is, fire restrictions specifically state that campfires are only allowed in designated sites, and you have to have a shovel, pail of water and person responsible for monitoring the fire at all times. Even if you have two, the third can be a problem,” he said.
In fact, stricter rules went into effect May 17 due to extremely dry vegetation that even ban smoking outside of designated areas (or vehicles) and recreational target shooting during fire season.
“You must clear all flammable material for a distance of five feet in all directions from your camp stove, have a shovel available, and ensure that a responsible person attends the stove at all times when it is in use,” the rules state.
The quick-moving fire caused mass evacuations of Paradise Road residents and the thousands of campers and visitors in the area for the holiday weekend.
Residents were allowed back into their homes Tuesday evening and many camp areas will reopen soon as well.
The U.S. Forest Service is closing the area beyond the first river crossing at the Lower Oso Picnic Area due to debris on the roads from the severely-burnt hillsides in that area, which is where the line was held to keep it from shooting up the mountain to Camino Cielo, Madsen said.
The Red Rock Campground and others will be closed until the roads reopen.
U.S. Forest Services personnel managed the incident from a command center at Live Oak Camp, which hosted trailers and catering trucks for the hundreds of firefighters. The command center will be closing down on Saturday.
There have been no injuries or fatalities, and only one structure was partially damaged, a Forest Service Hotshots barracks at the Los Prietos Ranger Station.
Agencies that assisted with the firefighting effort include Santa Barbara County, Santa Barbara City, Carpinteria/Summerland Fire, Montecito Fire, Lompoc Fire, Santa Maria City Fire, Chumash Fire, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue, California Highway Patrol and the American Red Cross.
— Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.