Santa Barbara- S County

Painted Cave Fire 25 Years Later - One Life and Nearly 500 Homes and Businesses Lost

Saturday anniversary remind the community of the devastation from one of the worst fires in local history

PAINTED CAVE FIRE 25 YEARS

GOLETA, Calif. - With temperatures over 100 degrees, and violent winds, flames in the hills above Goleta became a blow torch, as the Painted Cave fire destroyed nearly 500 homes and businesses on June 27, 1990.

The fire broke out at 6:02 p.m. at the intersection of Highway 154 and Painted Cave Rd.

Investigators say it was intentionally set in a dispute with neighbors, one who was convicted in a civil trial but the District Attorney at the time said there was not enough evidence for a criminal trial.

The raging fire exploded into a canyon and spread out in countless directions towards populated areas as people frantically evacuated.

One person Andrea Gurka, died trying to escape the flames in a gully half way down the pass.

Painted Cave resident Ted Adams was on  the pass when the flames broke out, " it made this incredible sound - it sounded like a bunch of express trains going down. Then when it jumped the freeway all bets were off." 

The fire exploded across six lanes of Highway 101 below Calle Real, an area many thought would be a place for fire crews to make a stand.  

Adams founded the Wildland Residents Association and together with the Painted Cave Volunteer Fire Department and a low power radio station, the area has built up its local defenses against fires and other emergencies.

Adams remembers how furious the winds and flames were for hours. He said it blew so hard the column of smoke did not go straight up at first, it went flat on the horizon and directly down to the lower elevations.

It could be seen from Ventura County, within minutes.

In his third year as a firefighter, Eric Peterson, now the Santa Barbara County Fire Chief says, "from then on it was just a chaotic and very humbling night."

He saw 440 houses, 30  apartment complexes, businesses and other structures destroyed.

Earlier that day Peterson and his crew were on another fire in Goleta that had burned for several hours in a trash "transfer" station. It burned waste products at that site and some vehicles.

But the massive Painted Cave Fire was unlike anything he had seen. "It was uncharted territory for everyone who was working that day. I think it is safe to say there were very few people who had seen anything like that," said Peterson.  His crew had some "saves" but not as many as he had hoped for because of the powerful winds, and numerous structures on fire at once.   Peterson said safety for firefighters was a top priority with the erratic conditions.

In the residential areas, Cavel Neeley was out of town and her son sprayed water on their Camino Del Rio home.  She was shocked to see most of her neighborhood in ashes.  Only a few houses were spared. "It was living in a graveyard up here for a year. It was just sad."

After the fire, her son was hospitalized, "because he had burned his eyes in the smoke and heat for so long." 

To this day she worries about another fire, even though there are more fire breaks, and more brush clearing than ever before.

The fire left a burnt page from a children's book on her door step which she framed and it read, "'Thank you dear God  for the sleep through the night. Thank you dear God for the glad morning light.' And I thought  'oh my gosh how touching.'" said Neeley.

Most of the devastation took place the first night, and the powerful fire eased back when on shore winds came up from the coast around Hollister and Modoc Road.  Trees there to this day are still blackened. 

That whipped up firestorms brought down a multi story condo complex but it also signaled a reverse in weather conditions.  

The fire burned in the hills for a several more days before it was contained.


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