“Wildfires start deceptively small, building up power, then usually rage angrily for hours, days — threatening, threatening.
“They terrorize, chase us from our homes in nightclothes and burn our belongings and our baby pictures. They trick us into thinking we can tame them with puny hoses carried by brave people and air-borne squirt guns wielded by heroes.
“They kill us.
“There’s something malevolent about wildfires. They aren’t acts of God. They’re nature striking back at mere men presuming to claim possession of the mountains.”
— Barney Brantingham, July 26, 1987
The Coyote Fire starts within a few inches of the Santa Barbara city boundary, one-tenth of a mile below Mountain Drive just before 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept., 22, 1964. It is caused by a car’s faulty exhaust system.
A local resident, who sees flames in the grass at the road’s edge, phones the Santa Barbara City Fire Department minutes later. The report is instantly put out on the radio, which is monitored by the Montecito Fire Protection District and the U.S. Forest Service.
The response is immediate. Within five minutes, two aerial bombers on their way. City fire sends one engine; Montecito Fire sends two.
One-half acre of the dry grass has been consumed by the time they get there.
Seven minutes after the report is received, the combined forces of the U.S. Forest Service, and city and county fire have put 14 men on the fire, illustrating how well coordinated these local agencies have become.
By 2:10 p.m., tankers, patrolmen, Hot Shot crews and helicopters are also on their way. In case the fire is not controlled quickly, the forest dispatcher has ordered an additional five air tankers and called for support from all four ranger districts in the southern portion of Los Padres National Forest.
The initial attack plan is to confine the fire to the east side of Coyote Road. That fails when the flames burn up through the crown of a large oak, and gusting winds fling hot coals to the other side of the road and across Mountain Drive to the north.
Quickly the forces divide: the Forest Service taking the portion above Mountain Drive, city and county fire that below.
Above Mountain Drive, the fire heads toward several houses, and rather than starting perimeter control, the Forest Service personnel divert their efforts toward protecting them. Pumper rigs and other support equipment find it difficult to get to the fire scene; it has been clogged by sightseers and local residents who rush to the area to protect their own homes.
At 5 p.m., all agencies meet to establish zones of responsibility. The Forest Service is given the area above Mountain Drive; the city, county and Montecito fire departments are given the job of handling all structures and fire lines below Mountain Drive.
The aerial bombing is going very well, and the possibility of controlling the fire at about 300 acres looks good.
But the fire is as erratic as the winds. Just as the fire is quelled, it breaks out again, is quelled, rebreaks out, is quelled, only to rebreak out once again.
When Darkness Comes
When darkness comes, the bombers are grounded and control of the fire is lost.
Bill Richardson is a writer who lives with his wife, Frankie, and two small children on Mountain Drive. Their story is among the many that is reported by the daily paper.
It is an ordinary day as the family heads to the beach — that is, until they see the smoke billowing over Mountain Drive.
Rushing home, they are stopped a short distance from it by police at Coyote Road and Mountain Drive. They pile out of the car and run up the hill, straining to see through the smoke.
At a bend in the road, they stop and see the flames rushing toward the adobe. The kids clutch at Frankie’s legs, and Frankie cries.
“I guess it’s gone,” he says. “Everything’s gone.”
Bill is referring to the house. It is a roughly constructed adobe that Bill has built himself on a rocky crag overlooking the coast.
There are also the animals. One is a burro, which is tethered near the house under a valley oak with the Mexican saddle the neighborhood kids so loved to ride. The others are dogs, four of them: Blue, a white Australian shepherd with a marble eye; Chica; Tejon; and a big black one, dubbed Hondo, which is scarred from a hundred encounters with the wild pigs that Richardson hunts with such great skill.
There are many manuscripts, too, including one about jungle warfare in the Pacific that he has almost finished. It is painful to think that all he has created is about to go up in smoke.
As the family watches, the fire races up the hill goaded by the mean sea breeze. Frankie cannot bear to look.
Old Girl to the Rescue
“Then the bomber came, that sweet bomber,” they remember later.
It appears before them, almost magically, slicing through the pall of smoke and into the clear blue sky, the rusty chemicals flooding from its bulky belly.
“Just at that moment, the very moment, sheets of flame leaped towards the house on the cliff. They were 60 feet high, and when a fire gets going that way, it takes everything in its path,” Bill says later, describing what he saw. “It was a superb piece of flying. The rusty cloud settled, right on target. The flames withered, subsided. The smoke cleared, and there was the house.”
Nearby, firefighters whistle in admiration at the skill and daring of the pilot. Even Frankie dared to look now.
“Thank God. They bombed us — dead on,” Frankie says.
“That’s 15 years of writing,” Bill says, quietly.
“It is hard to express the glowing thrill, the tightness in the throat and the quick blinking to make sure what you saw was there,” a reporter notes, “but at the height of the Coyote Fire yesterday afternoon, there was a great B-17 flying into the smoke and flame.”
The B-17 that bombs the Richardson house is named Old Girl.
The assault from the air is glamorous enough in moments like these, but mostly, it is hard work, and daring enough to test the best of men. For the six hours that 50-year-old Howard Haradon has maneuvered Old Girl through the smoky canyons above Mountain Drive, he has earned $1,320 — a fat day’s paycheck for most of us, but in the mountainous war zone it is well earned.
The bombing runs are tense, eight of them down into the tight canyons, barely 75 feet above the very hard ground, one of them fortunate enough to have saved the Richardson homestead.
Mountain Drive is littered with hose and thronged with fire company pumpers that are laced with columns of helmeted firefighters moving into the battle. In the midst of this, Bill, Frankie and the children walk up the smoke-filled road, their prayers seemingly answered.
They are stopped a few hundred yards below their place. Bill has rushed from the beach so quickly that he still hasn’t had the time to put his shoes on. But he can see a corner of his house through the smoke and that causes him to hurry on despite the ground, which is hot underfoot.
It is still there.
It certainly is still there. Coco, munching cooly on a pile of hay, seems undisturbed by it all. Nestled around him under the oak are the dogs, which swarm over Bill as he looks up at the house, which is splattered with rusty chemicals.
The Richardson house and gardens have become a tiny splattered island of green and gooey chemicals.
But it is there, and that is all that matters.
Then Comes the Terrible Night
The winds begin again at 8:30 p.m. They are vicious winds, the hot winds blasting up to 45 miles an hour, fanning the flames, shooting them hundreds of feet into the air, carrying them back downhill, threatening the city and pushing them westward.
There is no reason to hope it will stop short of the foothill homes and Mount Calvary Monastery, or even densely populated Mission Canyon.
“The fire strikes terror in the heart,” Litti Paulding reports, watching from the brink of a canyon across from the fire. “It is hard to read about a destructive fire that fells trees, horses, but when the sirens scream in your own town and you look to the foothills and see smoke rising toward the sky, and then a red glare shows behind the trees, your heart sinks.
“A wind whips the blaze, and the smoke and the fire spiral higher and race up a hill to take a toll of trees, underbrush and many houses. It is an awesome, heartbreaking, complete destruction by fire.”
“Nothing can stop that,” a woman moans, tightly clutching her husband’s arm, a member of a group of worried householders at the intersection of Gibraltar Road and El Cielito. “It’s not going to stop.”
The licking red flames become a 10-mile-wide front, burning in all directions as the winds came from all points of the compass, causing the brush to explode and the flames to race up the ridges.
Standing on roadsides or beside cars and trucks loaded with the few precious things they have chosen to take with them, Mountain Drive residents watch the brilliant flames race across the foothills a last time before fleeing.
Near Bill Richardson’s, the fire roars toward the structure. The rusty film of chemicals on his green island is to no avail. The flames roar across the cliff again. It is now well after dark, and this time there are no bombers to save it.
Bill, Frankie, Joelli, 4, and Gavin, 2, are at a friend’s house, thanking their stars, when they hear that their house is threatened once more. Bill and a friend leave quickly, ignoring firefighters’ warnings that if they go up the hill they won’t come down alive. They are worried about the animals.
Driving through a sky that is filled with raining ash, he and close friend Noel Young reach the house minutes before the raging flames pounce, leading Coco and the dogs to safety. Fortunately, there is just enough time to save all of Bill’s novel, though not most of his short stories.
At about 11:30 p.m., his house burns to the ground.
But thankfully, his family, his animals and a lot of his writing are OK.
“That’s something, anyway,” he thinks.
Assessing the Damage
At 6 the next morning, the nearly 1,000 grimy, tired firefighters who watch the sun rise over the fire know that their nightlong efforts have not been enough. Some of the men lumber into the fire trucks that will take them up treacherous, narrow, winding roads to situate them above the fire.
Others climb into helicopters that are taking off from the athletic field at Westmont College, where the base camp is located, readying themselves to be dropped into the midst of red-hot spots of fire. At the municipal airport, the engines of the B-17s and other bombers rev.
Westmont College has become a small town, springing to existence only yesterday. Today it is a bustling, crowded city, bursting with a population of more than 800. It is known simply as “Fire Camp.” The day is split neatly: For 12 hours they are on the fire lines; the other 12 they are in camp, eating, sleeping and waiting.
At camp, their eyes rarely leave the hills for long, watching for the spurt of flame or the billowing cloud of smoke that signals to them that the fire has broken out again.
This will be a crucial day on the fire line.
Aerial Assault Begins
Until dusk, the lumbering bombers shuttle in and out of the airport, the traffic so thick at times that the planes stack up on the loading ramp, impatiently awaiting a bellyful of retardant.
Haradon makes 18 runs on Wednesday. Wheeling around in the billowing smoke, his 25-year-old converted warship is shepherded to its target by a Forest Service T-34 piloted by Mike Beebe, 44, of Ontario.
Over the radio, the voices squawk, shouting out which ridge they want doused next. Haradon threads his way into the smoke, hugging the tail of the T-34, then laying the cloud of red mist right on target.
By the end of the day on Wednesday, nearly 500 trips have been made and more than a half-million gallons of retardant unloaded on every hot spot in the sprawling blaze.
But when the smoke clears briefly, the view is not encouraging.
The flames have broken through the chemical barrier, and they continue relentlessly upward. If the fire in Cold Springs Canyon is to be contained, it will have to be done at the mountaintop.
Over the Crest
Forest Service personnel await the fire there, with other crews fighting it on either side, trying to squeeze it into a narrow enough tongue of flame that it can be stopped by those who are on the crest.
It doesn’t work. In minutes, the flames cross the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains and burn down the north slopes to Forbush Flat.
What the Santa Barbara News-Press has called “the big one they all feared” is becoming the firefightera’ worst nightmare. By now, 13,000 acres have been consumed.
Front Country on Fire
Near Westmont, the fire is also beginning to heat up.
“The exploding sound of eucalyptus trees was as loud as the bang of a closet door in a heavy wind,” Mrs. Stitl says afterward. “Flying embers shot over Westmont’s athletic field weirdly reminiscent of the sky rockets that zoom over West Beach on the Fourth of July.”
“It’s like Dante’s Inferno,” a fleeing woman remarks.
At the corner of Hot Springs and East Valley Roads another woman weeps openly. “I’m crying for the beauty that is destroyed,” she tells concerned onlookers, “for there is no district in the United States as beautiful as Montecito.”
On the fire’s west flank, the wind blows huge embers across Rattlesnake Canyon, and at 8:45 p.m., a spot fire is reported in this canyon. Six houses are lost in Rattlesnake Canyon within an hour.
Mt. Calvary Monastery is completely surrounded by flames and is reported to be a total loss, but miraculously, it escapes with only minor damage.
Mission Canyon burns next, the fire surging past the Botanic Gardens, through houses at the upper end of Tunnel Road, and down into Lauro Canyon, roaring and leaping down the canyon, over one hill, down another, innumerable heads of flame unchecked by man, each attacking, one a stone’s throw from Wood Glen Hall, a senior citizens home, another heading beneath the San Roque Bridge and into Stevens Park, filling the air with the smell of eucalyptus oil.
Throughout the night, the pyrotechnics continue, the main body of fire proceeding west along the high foothills, sending flame down each of the branch canyons, first threatening Northridge Estates, then blackening Barger Canyon; finally pouring over into San Antonio Canyon.
The entire front country is on fire. The Coyote Fire has now burned 23,000 acres, and this night has become the single most destructive one in Santa Barbara’s history.
“The speeding fire, which overnight swept through the coastal front behind Santa Barbara, is the worst disaster since the 1925 earthquake,” the News-Press proclaims.
San Marcos Pass Communities Threatened
At 3 a.m. Thursday, sheriff’s deputies drive through Painted Cave, warning residents to evacuate. Near San Marcos Pass, Emmett Kinevan, the old man of the mountain, whose ancient stage stop is part of Santa Barbara’s historic pioneer spirit, is wakened at 3:30 a.m. by firefighters who tell him that he has ten minutes to leave.
“Nonsense!” he replies, then turns over in bed. He has been through too many of these to be worried. Most residents of the Pass do, however, leave, and by daylight few people are left on the mountain.
The Forest Service has committed every man and pumper available to halting the fire at Highway 154. It appears that the Painted Cave community will be sacrificed.
To hold the line at Highway 154, it is imperative that they backfire all the way to the top of the Pass, including the area where the homes of those in Painted Cave are located. The key factor in making this determination is the latest weather report, which predicts that the east winds will remain undiminished throughout the afternoon.
Alone on the Mountain
In Painted Cave, Monroe Russ has remained, facing what may be his executioner at 1 p.m. with a peaceful serenity. A golden meadow nearby ripples in the breeze, the same wind that has hurled a thousand tongues of flame toward him and threatens his home. Some of those tongues flare 300 feet into the air. Russ appears to be staring straight into the face of hell.
“It ain’t going to come,” he says determinedly, though the fire winds ruffling the grey hair on his head indicate otherwise. Everyone else has gone by this time; only Russ and three other men remain, save one family that is hurriedly throwing things in a pickup truck.
Then the family leaves and Russ is left completely alone with his home beside him, facing the fire only with his own thoughts as solace, standing in the shadow of a giant monster cloud of filthy, oily black smoke, the sun shining through, blood red. The community is quiet save the roar of the flames, the sound like that of a jet cutting through the thick air, and the droning sound of the bombers.
“I’ll be here until the flames come,” he vows, sure that the B-17s will snuff them out before they reach his house. But they couldn’t and didn’t.
Burning Out the Bowl
Forest Service crews busily begin torching the brush in the bowl immediately below the Painted Cave community.
The grasses along the east side of Highway 154 are lit up first, and then the crews begin to work their way up Painted Cave Road, setting the brush on fire on both sides of it.
As they approach the houses in the community, the crews hesitate, knowing that if they continue, the homes above them will certainly be destroyed as well. In an effort to delay the destruction of the community as long as possible, they hesitate for a few minutes, hoping against hope that the wind will shift.
By some miracle, it does. As it turns out, the weather report is wrong.
Just as the wall of flame approaches Painted Cave, there is a lull in the wind, and in a few minutes, it switches to the north, saving most of the houses there, though not that of Monroe Russ. Soon after this, he is forced to flee, his house behind him being consumed in flames.
Quickly, the other men run about to various houses, putting out small fires with hoses.
“I think we saved two or three houses,” one of them remembers, “then we had to leave.”
At 4 p.m., the flames have laid down enough so that Pass residents are able return to see what is left of their homes and precious possessions.
One lone man approaches a reporter with two doorknobs in his hands, his eyes teary.
“Lady,” he says, his voice hollow, “you won’t believe it, but this is my front door-knob, and this is my back. There was a home in between!”
Though 40 homes in Painted Cave have been saved by the fortuitous shift in the wind’s direction, eight houses have been completely destroyed there, 19 total along the Pass.
Invasion of the Backcountry
The Coyote Fire, three days old and 35,000 acres in size, has now invaded the Santa Ynez drainage in force.
At 12:03 p.m., the clock in the Los Prietos Ranger Station stops. Electrical power now reaches the valley only in spurts. Kerosene lamps flicker in the ranger offices, and under the soft light a plan is readied if the fire should head their way.
When the fire appears on the mountain crest, Stubby Mansfield is informed by radio that he is now the zone boss for the Paradise area, though he has little equipment and few men.
“It’s coming down 10 times faster than it should have,” he shouts over the radio, letting the command center at Westmont College know that he needs more men right now. Then he hurries out to Gaucho Lane, where he has stationed the two meager trucks that make up his forces.
But there hasn’t been time enough to backfire much of a line. To the left, the flames burst through to the road’s edge, threatening the ranger station. Running as fast as they can, the men scurry over a small hill, setting fires behind them, heading to the station, where all personnel are being evacuated. There, they set fire to the grass at the road side, hoping it will burn out the area enough to keep the fire from crossing Paradise Road.
The fire catches slowly, then, as the heat builds, begins to burn more rapidly toward the wildfire. The flames meet in the crown of a large oak, the tree crackling, the sound like that of a dry Christmas tree on fire, then subside. The ranger station has been saved.
During the remainder of the afternoon, a continuous backfire is set along Paradise Road down the valley, and for the time being, the threat in this area has been stemmed.
Death on the Fire Line
All is not this well on the fire line, however.
Jerry Berry, the fire control officer for the Santa Barbara Ranger District, is typical of the men who have been on the lines. His face is blackened and his eyes reddened.
Someone asks him when he has slept last. “I think I had three hours last night,” he mumbles. “Or maybe it was the night before last.” It will be a while before he gets much more.
At 1 p.m. Thursday, line boss Jerry Berry puts out a call on the radio network. There is an urgency in his voice. An unknown number of men have been trapped by a flareup on the north side — as many as 30 men may be involved.
While the air attack works continuously to hold down the flames, Berry and several of the smokejumpers scramble down a draw in the unburned brush, 250 to 300 yards west of the area where the main crew had been burned.
They find one man with a broken leg 200 yards below the summit, and with the aid of a dozer, build a line into the injured man and get him out safely.
Immediately afterward, the fire overtakes this area and burns it out completely.
At Romero Saddle, the flames pour in from three sides, trapping four of the firefighters from Yreka as they hack out a fire line nearby. Before they can run, it is on them, the flames drifting across the dirt road which is the only hope of escape.
Three of the men fling themselves in the dirt below the road. But the fourth, John Patterson, hesitates, then yells at the others, “Come on! We can make it this way,” he shouts as he starts up the road.
“Stop!” yells one of the others, Dave Alberts. But Patterson runs on.
For a half-hour, the other three men grovel in the dirt, covering themselves up with it the best they can. Patterson is 400 feet away, dead.
“If he had been maybe 200 feet further, he might’ve been able to run through the flames and get out,” Blain Alpheus, one of the members, says afterward. “He yelled at me, ‘Come on, we can make it this way.’
“That’s when I hit the dirt in that bank. I looked up and saw him run. All around him there was nothing but flame. Then he was gone. We must’ve missed death by about a second. “
Into the Backcountry
John Chase, who is the caretaker at Jameson Reservoir, is almost caught by the shift in the fire’s direction. “I could hear the flames roaring down the mountain toward my cabin about 11:30 p.m. that night. I jumped into my pickup truck and headed up a narrow road to the lake behind the dam. I just got out in the nick of time.”
His plan was to take his boat out on the lake, but when he gets there he finds, to his discomfort, that the boat is on the other side and unreachable. Instead, he uses buckets of water, wet sacks, and a shovel to make a crude firebreak around the truck and through the grass to the lake’s edge.
He keeps his vigil on the bank of the reservoir through the night, wetting the sacks and scrapping away at the soil. Deer, fox, coyote, raccoons, big rats and snakes join him at various times.
At dawn, when he leaves, safe from the fire’s clutching jaws, he is thankful to be alive.
By Friday afternoon, the Coyote Fire has become a backcountry fire. At 9:30 the next morning, it crosses below Jameson Reservoir and moves within two miles of Hildreth Peak. Then, as the wind shifts, it swings back again to the reservoir, encircles it, and moves east to Divide Peak and west toward Camuesa Peak.
Backfires eliminate the threat on the western front, and on the eastern slopes the biggest aerial attack ever brought to bear on a California fire keeps this side in check.
Nevertheless, more than 60,000 acres have been burned by 2 p.m., including one-sixth of the entire Santa Ynez drainage, this alone accounting for more than 45,000 acres of the total.
A Change in the Weather
Finally, however, the firefighters gain a needed ally — a shift in weather — and the day proves to be the turning point in the war on this fire.
“In the vast breast of the Pacific breathed forth a blessed shroud of fog and cloud,” Bill Botwright reports in poetic fashion. “Deep and dense with soothing moisture it moved over the bones of ravaged homes, mounted the stark and blackened slopes and debouched upon the inner valleys.
“The cruel beast called Coyote slackened in its ravenous pace, tired, and — in the coastal areas — lay down to slumber in the brutal ruin it had wrought.”
Stubby Mansfield has become the boss on the Potrero Seco fire zone, the remaining area that is out of control. The fire has burned Agua Caliente and Diablo canyons, crossing east of Hildreth Peak, advancing behind a 12 mile per hour breeze.
“Actually,” Mansfield tells the crew on Friday night, “I feel we’re in pretty good shape. We’ve had a few flare-ups, and the line is not tied in, but we hope to control it sometime tomorrow.”
The next day during early morning aerial reconnaissance, there is a grin on Mansfield’s face. It is his happiest moment in the past four days. For the first time, he has the feeling that the fire can be licked.
Oct. 1 Containment
On Oct. 1, the day on which containment is finally declared, it is sunny and clear. The giant tip of Hildreth Peak dominates the skyline, overlooking a charred landscape that is devoid of life. An orange-helmeted Forest Service employee stands on the tip top, surrounded by a ring of packs, awaiting an airlift, the last man remaining on the fire line.
The Coyote Fire has not died easily. Rather, it has been hacked and bombed, and backfired to death, a death ensured more by weather patterns than an act of man. It has destroyed much, though not the spirit of those who have lost their homes.
“It’s odd how you can keep going, smoky day after smoky day,” Audrey Ovington explains in describing the spunk of the mountain people. “You get your strength from the ‘fire wind’ that advances in front of the enemy. The scorched earth makes you fight to save the rest that is still green.
“As the people were coming back to see what was left, I saw many strange sights:
“A mother with a baby in her arms, standing on a burned-out platform that used to be their home, silhouetted against the sky, children staring into a letterbox with no house behind it.
“I met car after car of people coming back to see what was left. They were of such raw courage, and good spirit, that it was impossible to tell who had lost a cabin and who hadn’t.
“All I spoke to and who had lost, planned to rebuild.”
One woman stands at the charred black window frame of her much loved home, three gaping holes where there once were windows. A smile comes over her face.
She looks at her husband and says, “I’ve always wanted to have a picture window. Now we have one!”