The Sycamore Fire began on July 26, 1977, in the midst of prolonged drought and high temperatures. The fire began at approximately 7:30 p.m. after a man lost control of a metal-framed kite that became entangled in power lines near Coyote Road and East Mountain Drive. The kite’s line caused an electric arc to shower the underlying brush with sparks. A call went out to Montecito Fire at around 7:40, and two trucks were immediately dispatched. At first the fire appeared to be manageable, and an air tanker was sent to drop retardant at around 8:20. However, at around 8:45, just after the airtanker had been grounded for the night, an extremely intense wind event caused the fire to explode out of control and quickly overwhelm firefighters.
With reported 90 mph gusts, the fire quickly spread, engulfing houses along Mountain Drive. Over the next few minutes the fire expanded rapidly in three directions — up into the foothills, down into Sycamore Canyon, and west into the Riviera community. Embers from burning roof shingles rained down in all directions. Soon, dozens of houses were ablaze. The situation grew worse as water pressure to fire hydrants failed due to mass numbers of people turning on their residential hoses and sprinklers in a desperate effort to save homes. Due to limited water and the sheer volume of burning structures, firefighters were forced to abandon all but the most easily accessible houses. Things finally turned around at 2:30 a.m. as a sea breeze pushed in a marine layer and sent the fire back up toward Mountain Drive, where firefighters managed to contain it. By sunrise the threat was over. In just seven hours, 234 structures had burned, totaling $26 million in damages.