The following article first appeared in the December 29, 1999 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission.
Fireworks caused Ranch Fire
County fire investigators have determined that the cause of last week’s brushfire that destroyed one home on Sisar Road and denuded 4,371 acres of land was two young men setting off illegal fireworks.
There is growing speculation within the community that the pair may have been attempting to blow up a mailbox.
“Reckless use of fireworks is what we’re looking at, but there could certainly be other penal code charges,” said Sandi Wells, chief public information officer for the County’s Fire Protection District.
Wells said that the type of fireworks that were ignited “were not the safe and sane type that you buy in Fillmore,” but rather imports that fly through the air like a bottle rocket.
Authorities from the Fire Department, California Division of Forestry, the U.S. Forest Service and the Sheriff’s Department are expected to complete their investigations by the end of the week, and their conclusions will then be presented to the district attorney’s office. The reports will contain the results of physical evidence and interviews.
“It’s then up to the D.A. to decide if there is enough to substantiate the filing of criminal charges,” Wells said.
In that event, the two suspects could be arrested as early as next week.
“The Fire District would more than likely go for cost recovery of the suppression efforts and that does not include what a judge may impose as restitution,” Wells added.
The gusty and swirling winds that returned to the Ojai area earlier this week did not create additional problems for firefighters who reported Sunday that the Ranch Fire — 64 percent of which burned wildland acreage in the Los Padres National Forest — had been fully contained.
The fast-moving fire began Wednesday night near Koenigstein Road, and was fueled by unseasonably dry conditions and fierce easterly winds estimated to gust at more than 70 mph. Within hours, it was skirting the East End of the city, threatening homes, private schools, and forcing the evacuation of more than 40 homeowners.
By daybreak Thursday, nearly 1,500 county and mutual aid firefighters from Central and Southern California successfully protected homes and property along Thacher, Reeves and McAndrew roads, although a trailer was reportedly burned on Reeves Road.
Other reported losses include thousands of dollars in outdoor equipment and numerous small structures at The Ojai Foundation.
Four firefighters reportedly received minor injuries, the most serious of which required the helicopter rescue of an unidentified 18-year-old Department of Corrections handcrew member who was transported to the Ventura County Medical Center with a possible broken ankle.
The big break came in fighting the fire just before sunrise Thursday when on-shore winds helped push the flames back into the wilderness canyons of the Los Padres National Forest, away from populated areas.
But even as late as Monday afternoon, there were reports of smoldering brush behind a residence in the 4900 block of Reeves Road.
According to information provided by the U.S. Forest Service, approximately 935 firefighters will continue working around the clock to mop up the remaining hot spots within the fire’s perimeter. Officials anticipate the fire will be out late Thursday.
Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper, an Ojai Resident, attributed responsible weed abatement and the clearing of brush on Sisar Road and other areas as the reason more structures were not lost.
“The Sisar Road vegetation management of two years ago was a big save,” Roper said, adding that the county’s official fire season, which normally ends Nov. 15, won’t end until 2 inches of rain has fallen. Gigi Coyle of The Ojai Foundation, said although Happy Valley School and Ojai Foundation property were hit hard by the flames, about a dozen staff and neighbors worked to secure the main structures once the firestorm had past.
“Without their timely help, these critical structures would likely have been lost as fires were still burning out of control in the hills surrounding the foundation,” Coyle said.
“Thanks to the demands of our local fire department, many years of clearing around our structures also contributed to our safety. As one fire chief said, ‘It’s a miracle what happened here; the fire’s pattern, how often it came right up to structures and then stopped or went around.’
“We are so grateful for the personal commitment of these firefighters and ground crews during the holiday season.”
As firefighters worked through Christmas Day setting backfires that burned approximately 500 acres in a successful effort to contain the fire, many area residents misinterpreted that the large visible flames and resulting smoke meant the fire’s return to populated areas.
But fire officials said that the operation that included the use of both helicopter and ground-firing devices “ran like clockwork.”
Fire officials estimate the cost of fighting the fire at nearly $5 million, and noted that firefighters have constructed more than 20 miles of fire lines. All remaining statewide agencies that helped fight the fire left Monday, with the county and Forest Service sharing command. Also on Monday, the County Board of Supervisors held a special meeting to declare the burned land a disaster area, making the fire victims eligible to receive disaster relief funds.
The Forest Service is assembling a Burned Area Rehabilitation Team out of the Ojai Ranger Station to survey the affected area inside the National Forest and determine what steps need to be taken to minimize post-fire impact.
The team will pay particular attention to the potential for downstream flooding and subsequent effects to private property.