Santa Barbara man accused of setting brush fire on TV hill, other spot fires
Santa Barbara Police investigators arrested a suspected arsonist around midnight Friday morning between Loma Alta Drive and West Ortega Street following a wind-driven, fast-moving vegetation fire on the Mesa that was visible around much of the city.
Victor Hernandez, 23, of Santa Barbara, was arrested on scene on suspicion of being under the influence of a controlled substance and taken into custody while the fire investigation continued, according to a report from the Santa Barbara Police Department.
Following an interview by police detectives and fire investigators, it was determined that there were five separate fires in total Thursday night, and officials believe the Loma Fire was an act of arson.
Mr. Hernandez was booked in the Santa Barbara County Jail on suspicion of: arson of an inhabited dwelling (vegetation fire caused damage to a structure), five counts of general arson, being under the influence of a controlled substance and possession of narcotics. He was being held on $2 million bail.
As of 6 p.m. Friday, the fire was considered 80% contained having charred an estimated 10 acres. Loma Alta Drive remained closed all day Friday. Fire crews remained on scene and officials warned that “revivals of the fire,” may be seen but were being monitored closely.
Santa Barbara Police reported that around 8:55 p.m. Thursday, numerous 9-1-1 calls came in about a large vegetation fire on Loma Alta Drive. When multiple officers and fire department personnel arrived at the scene, the hillside adjacent to Loma Alta Drive was ablaze, and city fire requested assistance from other fire agencies.
Fire Engineer and city fire spokesman Kevin Corbett helped put out the flames Friday night, which he said was “kind of exciting to do.”
“Honestly, it was the biggest vegetation fire in town since the Thomas Fire, really,” he told the News-Press.
Multiple off-duty city police officers were called to assist with evacuations. According to Sgt. Robert Minter, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office also sent a large contingent of search and rescue personnel to assist with evacuations. Ten deputies responded to the command post, and hundreds of residents in the area were evacuated.
Fire Engineer Corbett said one of the biggest challenges was the terrain, namely the steepness of the hill.
“It was very slippery,” he said. “Once it gets wet, there’s nothing to hold you — you’re just slipping and sliding, so it’s very difficult to maintain your footing.”
Around midnight Friday, city fire investigators said they “noticed a suspicious subject scrambling down the lower portion of the hill and hiding in the brush” between Loma Alta Drive and West Ortega Street.
The suspect was later identified as Mr. Hernandez, authorities said.
Police detectives and fire investigators established a timeline that put Mr. Hernandez at the scene of the fire.
Joyce Dudley, the Santa Barbara County district attorney, was unable to comment on the Loma Fire investigation, which is continuing. On Friday afternoon, Ms. Dudley said Mr. Hernandez could be facing a misdemeanor or a felony.
“Arson is like any other crime — the sentences would be dependent upon the circumstances, the extent of the injuries to persons or property and the arsonist’s prior record,” she told the News-Press.
Ms. Dudley said she has prosecuted all sorts of arson cases. She has prosecuted an arsonist for murder who’s still serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, and she placed a juvenile in a restorative justice program with no jail time.
It is unclear if Mr. Hernandez had any prior criminal charges.
The Loma Fire began as a two-story structure fire in the 600 block of West Ortega Street, and it climbed up TV Hill. No injuries were reported, and two structures on the Westside were damaged, but not destroyed. Evacuation orders were lifted by 12:30 a.m. Friday morning.
While the investigation into the cause of the fire is still ongoing, high winds, warm temperatures and severe drought status in Santa Barbara provided the perfect storm for the Loma Fire.
Ryan Kittell, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard, told the News-Press that the winds experienced by the city this past week have “definitely peaked.”
“We still are going to have the sundowner winds, but not as strong as we had Tuesday through Thursday,” he said.
May and June are both peak sundowner wind months, but Mr. Kittell said the wind gusts will be fairly typical in the near future, ranging at 30 mph as opposed to the 50 mph winds ripping through Santa Barbara in recent days.
The meteorologist said the southern part of Santa Barbara can expect clear skies over the weekend and into next week, while the central and northern areas will likely see a marine layer.
Weekend highs sit at around 70 degrees, with temperatures expected to increase early next week.
And, as expected, the region is not expecting any rain, “unless we get a random thunderstorm during monsoon season, which we can’t really count on,” according to Mr. Kittell.
The severe drought is highlighted in the rainfall amount recorded at the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport. So far, the airport has had 5.8 inches of rain, and at this time, levels are typically around 14 inches.
“Boaters in the area are still seeing very strong winds and really large swells,” Mr. Kittell added. “But we’re expecting that to improve over the weekend.”
Engineer Corbett said he was grateful for the collaboration from all over the county, which also included crews from the Ventura County Fire Department.
“I personally was proud to be there and be amongst my fellow firefighters,” he said. “We were very fortunate to have the mutual aid we had … It felt good to be protecting our own community.”