Painted Cave Fire 30th Anniversary
By Robert Bernstein
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the start of the Painted Cave Fire which officially burned from June 27, 1990 to July 2, 1990.
Here are my photos from that horrific fire that I have never shared before.
At the time, it was the most destructive fire in California history, with 641 structures destroyed. 4,900 acres were burned. Andrea Lang Gurka, age 37, died while fleeing the flames along San Marcos Pass Road.
It was an exceptionally hot day. Records indicate the high temperature was 109 degrees. The call went out for a brush fire at 6:02 PM and the first fire engine arrived just minutes later. Firefighters were still finishing up fighting another fire at that time.
This was the scene from near my apartment off Phelps Road in Goleta where Girsh Park is today:
It looked a bit scary, but under normal circumstances it looked manageable. Most of the time the prevailing winds would be uphill on the mountain face. Which would take the fire away from the major populated areas. But the extreme heat and powerful down-slope winds made this anything but normal.
The smoke was soon billowing high in the air over our neighborhood
And flames could be seen sweeping down the mountain
In just two hours the flames had come all the way down to the freeway and jumped over the freeway as if it was not even there. It was not that the fire was so intense. It was more a matter of the winds blowing embers at high speed over vast distances.
As night fell, people gathered to watch from our area of Goleta.
Many of us did not realize that San Marcos Pass was almost directly above us. Including the KEYT reporters, who at one point reported that the fire was coming into our neighborhood. Fortunately for us they were wrong. The fire came down in the area near 154 and Highway 101.Fire fighting planes flew over our heads on the way to the fire. At this time the fire fighting air base was here at the Santa Barbara airport. That meant they were on it quickly, but they were no match for the fierce winds and heat.
Our company, Digital Instruments, had been in an old brick bank records building near the corner of Hollister and Modoc Road. We had moved out to the area near Hollister and Storke not long before the Painted Cave Fire. It was sad to see that entire neighborhood around where we had been almost completely destroyed. I rode my bicycle over to that neighborhood to survey the damage.
The iconic Santa Barbara restaurant "The Philadelphia House" was in total ruins and never came back.
The fact that a tile company burned showed how complete the destruction had been.
Interestingly, our old building was not damaged.
I climbed a nearby hill by the railroad tracks to get broader views of that neighborhood.
And a view of the total destruction looking back up toward the mountains
Later, I went for a ride with my co-worker friend Peter Maivald up San Marcos Pass Road and we got this sweeping view of the total destruction below
Our illustrious employer Virgil Elings owned a house on Via Clarice in the middle of that area of total destruction. His one house was an island that was spared. He had a small orchard on his property that had an automatic watering system.
He stayed on the property as long as possible, hosing down his roof. Then he turned on that watering system and fled when there was no other choice. Those actions saved his home. Again, it showed that in this case the fire was big, but mostly it was spread by embers. Keeping things watered was enough to keep the embers from taking hold.
Fire fighters will always tell people to get out and not risk getting caught in the fire, but sometimes it does pay to stay awhile and fight the fire. It is a big risk, though, no doubt about it.
Fire investigators quickly determined that it was a case of arson and found the point of origin near the intersection of Highway 154 and Painted Cave Road. But arson fires are very difficult to investigate because much evidence is destroyed in the fire. The case soon went cold. But about five years later Peggy Finley told her minister that her former boyfriend Leonard Ross had admitted to starting the fire.
Ross told her he lit the fire to burn out his neighbor Michael Linthicum as a result of an ongoing feud between them. Linthicum's house in fact was one of the first homes destroyed in the fire. Ross said he did not realize it would get out of control.
But there was never enough evidence to prosecute Ross criminally. However, in 2000 he was successfully prosecuted in a civil case and ordered to pay $2.75 million in damages. Ross earned very little money in a craft business and his own property was so remote it was of little value. There was little chance of paying much of those damages.
When the Painted Cave fire happened it was so extraordinarily huge and destructive it was hard to imagine anything worse coming later to our region.
But the December 2017 Thomas Fire was almost 60 times bigger in terms of acres destroyed and almost twice as destructive in terms of structures. While the Thomas fire killed two people directly, another 21 deaths resulted in the Montecito mudflow which was a result of the fire.
Record fires have been coming ever more often in recent years in terms of area and structures destroyed. The worst to date being the November 2018 Camp Fire which destroyed the entire town of Paradise. It destroyed 18,804 structures and killed 86 people.
Humans have created a perfect storm of destruction by altering the climate and by building ever more into previously natural areas.
Let us remember the terrible loss and tragedy of the Painted Cave Fire on this 30th anniversary. And let us also redouble our efforts to stop the forces that are leading to ever more of these tragedies.