A few movers and shakers in the foothills area of San Antonio Creek Road near Santa Barbara have been working steadily since the devastating 1990 Painted Cave Fire to improve fire safety and evacuation procedures in their neighborhood.
Of the more than 400 structures burned in the deliberately set, 5,000-acre wildfire, a significant number were in the San Antonio Creek Road community. Even after the years of recovery and rebuilding, the memories of what happened are still fresh in the minds of many residents.
On the windy late afternoon of Nov. 25, 2019, the Cave Fire ignited above Santa Barbara with the potential to decimate mountain and foothill neighborhoods just as the Painted Cave Fire did; somehow, however, no homes were destroyed or damaged this time.
But the blaze demonstrated the success of the years-long efforts of one neighborhood to improve fire awareness, safety and evacuation during a potent wind-driven wildfire.
San Antonio Creek Homeowners Association activist Kendra O’Connor is committed to preserving and safeguarding her neighborhood.
Aside from chairing the San Antonio Creek Road Committee, she and neighbor Susan Epstein joined forces with Santa Barbara County, the county Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service and residents of other high-fire-danger communities to develop the San Marcos Pass/Eastern Goleta Valley Mountainous Area Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP).
O’Connor and Epstein both firmly believe wildfire is an ongoing threat.
Epstein moved into the neighborhood just after the Painted Cave Fire, an event that O’Connor experienced first-hand.
Then an 18-year-old recent graduate of San Marcos High School, O’Connor was home alone when the inferno came roaring down the mountain. She escaped with just the clothes on her back and her beloved cat.
Her parents rebuilt their house after the fire took it and almost everything the family owned. She and her husband, Chris O’Connor, now live there today.
Since then, the San Antonio Creek Homeowners Association, now led by O’Connor, has worked to create a safer living environment for community residents.
Wildfire safety has consistently been the association’s major concern and top priority. Educating and assisting residents with wildfire awareness and safety strategies has been tantamount.
The association’s preparations, education and plan paid off when the Cave Fire invaded the neighborhood in November.
In 2010, when development of The Boulders, a 20-home project on 14 acres of meadowland off San Antonio Creek Road, was proposed, the San Antonio Creek Road Homeowners Association and area residents expressed deep concerns and fought the project as initially planned.
The main apprehension of residents revolved around their collective experience of trying to evacuate during the Painted Cave Fire with only one evacuation route. Many clearly recalled the nightmare of clogged roadways and the need to abandon their vehicles to save their lives.
The Boulders project, with minor modifications, was approved in 2013.
A lawsuit filed against the development by the San Antonio Creek association, the California Native Plant Society and the Friends of Saspili, a coastal Chumash preservation organization, resulted in a monetary settlement that provided funds to update neighborhood fire evacuation routes and create fire prevention and mitigation measures for the area residents.
Over the last three decades, much has been done with regard to improving fire safety in the San Antonio Creek neighborhood.
The county has required homeowners to adhere to fire-resistant architecture and specified building materials. As residents rebuilt after the Painted Cave Fire, on their own initiative most chose to bury utility lines, leaving few utility poles in the area.
Working hand in hand with CWPP, members of the San Antonio Creek Homeowners Association road committee and the county have improved an unmaintained county road to use as an emergency evacuation route.
The emergency route begins on Via Los Santos and follows an extension of lower San Antonio Creek Road, emptying into Tucker’s Grove, a popular county park whose entrance is on Cathedral Oaks Road at North Turnpike Road.
During a disaster evacuation of residents in the San Antonio Creek neighborhood, the only safe route is down the slope into town.
During the Cave Fire, most fleeing residents chose to take Via Los Santos to Old San Marcos Road, turning right onto Cathedral Oaks Road, not realizing there is now an additional escape route. This route, constructed by the neighborhood action groups, was largely unused in the midst of the Cave Fire.
As a result, congestion on Via Los Santos and Old San Marcos Road was severe due to the multitude of evacuees, most of whom stopped for the traffic signal at Cathedral Oaks and Old San Marcos roads.
Only when law enforcement arrived and provided traffic controls did the congestion ease. Had more residents been aware of the alternate evacuation route through Tucker’s Grove Park, a more efficient, quicker and less stressful evacuation likely would have ensued.
One area resident who did use the new evacuation route was O’Connor. Asked if she felt safer using the new route compared with her evacuations during the Painted Cave, Gap and Jesusita fires, she was quick to reply, “Absolutely.”
She and Epstein followed up by clarifying a need to further educate neighborhood residents about the existence of the new evacuation route, with both women agreeing “there’s definitely rom for improvement.”
Following the Cave Fire, O’Connor spoke with several of her neighbors. She learned “most were aware of the emergency route but were not familiar enough to use it during a crisis, even though I have urged residents to get to know their routes of escape before there is a catastrophic event.”
Noozhawk spoke with resident Ron Guadagno, who lives near San Antonio Creek Road, both on the night of the Cave Fire and a couple of weeks later.
“Until just recently, I was unaware of the emergency route,” he said.
Fortunately, by the time he and his wife left their home, the traffic congestion on the main route had cleared.
On a recent visit to view the newly improved evacuation route, Noozhawk noticed that someone along the repaved and widened road had posted an official-looking sign reading, “Dead End.”
The San Antonio Creek Road Homeowners Association plans to update the signage along the route and better educate residents about using the route during future evacuation efforts.
In addition to spreading the word, the association is working to create an overarching fire safety plan.
“We are looking into consultants for an evacuation study, similar to what Mission Canyon residents participated in a few years ago,” O’Connor said. “Hopefully, with their help we can map out possible neighborhood improvements.”
In addition, the association hopes to establish a network of neighborhood safety coordinators and an index of vulnerable and elderly residents who may require special services during future evacuations.
For residents who lived through the Painted Cave Fire nearly 30 years ago, the Cave Fire was eerily similar. Thankfully, due to the first-responders’ quick response, the effective use of firefighting resources, the work of this neighborhood’s activists and Mother Nature’s fickleness, not a home nor soul was lost in this fire.
— Peter Hartmann and Stacey Wright make up the Urban Hikers team. Any opinions expressed are their own.