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1955 Refugio Fire

Map of the Refugio Fire burn area, 1955

The Refugio Fire of September 1955 was one of the first large-scale wildfires to strike Santa Barbara County in the age of modern fire management. After the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, strategy focused on the suppression fires, both natural and human-caused. Decades of rapid and effective response to even remote and naturally occurring fires allowed for a massive buildup of dry fuel through the entire San Ynez range.

At around 1 a.m. on September 6, a structure fire on La Chirpa Ranch (now named La Scherpa) triggered by an electrical malfunction, providing the spark that would trigger a massive 80,000-acre fire across the coastal range.

As ranch hands attempted to extinguish the burning structure, the situation rapidly grew out of control and a call was placed to the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. Realizing the fire was outside their jurisdiction, county firefighters contacted Forest Service personnel, who quickly mobilized to assess the threat. All hope of an easy containment was lost as winds caused the fire to grow rapidly in all directions. Initially, the Forest Service divided its resources to fight along the west, south, and east edges of the fire but this quickly overwhelmed their resources. After a hard-fought rescue of the Circle Bar B Guest Ranch, all efforts to save Goleta became a priority.

Firefighters utilized bulldozers and hand crews to create fuel breaks in the hills above Goleta as ridgeline fire began sending fingers down the canyons. However, as harsh winds persisted, these fire lines proved ineffective and were continuously overrun. Realizing that greater resources were needed, additional units were called in from across the state command units reorganized at the San Marcos Trout Club.

Firefighters managed to take advantage of extra hands as well as a pause in the wind to gain the upperhand on the fire’s western flank on September 8. As the fire’s westward threat was all but over, the eastern and northern flanks continue to burn into the backcountry uncontrolled before eventually running out of fuel and dying out on September 15. The fire’s sheer size and ferocity caused a fundamental shift in the way firefighters think about fire management in a chaparral environment. New strategies, such as controlled burning, fuel removal, and rapid/effective communication between authorities would become more relevant factors in managing forests in the years to come.

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