Andrea Lang Gurka saw the flames shortly after 6 p.m. and called her husband to discuss possible escape routes from their home near Santa Barbara.
It was June 27, 1990.
According to a Los Angles Times story from July 7, 1990, Gurka had limited mobility. The 37-year-old artist had sprained both ankles the previous year.
Her car had broken down the day before, and she couldn’t reach neighbors.
Searchers found her body two days after the fire in a creek bed about 75 yards from her home.
Miraculously, Gurka’s was the only death in the Painted Cave, or, Paint Fire, which started near the top of San Marcos Pass above Santa Barbara. According to Cal Fire, it is the 11st most destructive wildfires on record in California, burning 5,000 acres and destroying 427 buildings.
Driven by sundowner wind gusts as high as 40 miles per hour, the fire roared down the west side of Highway 154, crossing six lanes of Highway 101 less than two hours after it started. The heaviest damage took place in the hours between 6 pm and midnight.
According to the Associated Press, a Highway Patrol officer suffered a broken arm when he tried to prevent a motorcyclist from running a barricade. A few firefighters were also reported to have suffered injuries.
At the time, the state fire marshal called the Painted Cave Fire the “fastest-moving fire of its type ever in the United States.”
Reporter David Wilcox and photographer Robert Dyer of The Telegram-Tribune drove to Santa Barbara to report the night of the fire. Telegram-Tribune reporter David Eddy and I followed the next morning.
It was an tragic and eerie scene. The fire had sliced through neighborhoods leaving ash, twisted metal and masonry. Even ice plant was reduced to powder.
Four years of drought, record heat, high winds and a match had combined to destructive effect.
“It came so fast,” Kate Miller said the next morning. “We only had four minutes to get out.”
Amid the sorrow there were a few miracles. Glenn Hemingway found his cat, Tory, meowing in the branches of a blackened tree though his house was lost.
Laura Petrini, 8, salvaged cups and plates from the ruins of her family’s Rancho San Antonio area home.
It came so fast. We only had four minutes to get out.
John Petrini came to grips with the catastrophic loss by trying to find his humor. His home had been appraised two years earlier at $525,000. “It would be tough to get that now,” he said forcing a smile.
Speaking about his lost home and contents, Petrini said, “It represents a lot of life, but everybody made it out safe.”
Added his son David, 14: “And that’s the most important thing.”
The man suspected of causing the Painted Cave or Paint Fire was never criminally charged. The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office thought there wasn’t enough evidence to win the unanimous verdict required for criminal conviction.
Leonard Ross denied setting the fire.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Santa Barbara court ordered Leonard Ross to pay $2.75 million for the county’s losses in a December 2000 ruling.
Two of Ross’s former girlfriends testified against him, and evidence was presented of a feud with a neighbor involving the first of 427 houses destroyed in the fire. Several public buildings were lost as well.
The fire caused $250 million in damage; that amount would be roughly doubled when adjusted for inflation.
The Santa Barbara Independent said the 40 acres of land that Ross owned at the end of 3.5 dirt road miles off of Old San Marcos Pass was auctioned to pay damages. The property sold for $380,000.
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