Embers escaping from an approved fire-use campsite sparked the White Fire that burned nearly 2,000 acres last week in the Lower Santa Ynez Recreation Area, according to investigators.
Law enforcement officers from the Los Padres National Forest and the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Arson Task Force determined the fire was started accidentally in the White Rock Day Use Area, the Lompoc Record reported.
District Attorney Joyce Dudley said because there was no malfeasance by the campers they would not be prosecuted.
The fire started around 2:45 p.m. on Memorial Day and burned 1,984 acres before being contained Thursday. It burned through the White Rock, Sage Hill and Los Prietos campgrounds on Monday when strong winds helped double the fire’s size over a 2 1/2-hour period.
On Tuesday, the blaze ringed Upper Oso Campground on the northern edge where firefighters were able to hold it in check.
At its peak, approximately 900 firefighters and support personnel, six air tankers and a dozen helicopters battled the wind-whipped fire as it burned through the popular hiking and camping area.
“The White Fire could have been avoided if this person or persons paid closer attention to their cooking fire,” said Santa Barbara District Ranger Pancho Smith. “Cooking and enjoying campfires are time-honored traditions associated with enjoying our public lands, but we need to be vigilant when using fire during these extremely dry conditions.”
Preliminary estimates put the cost of fighting the region’s first large wildfire of the season at $3 million. The fire and the suppression effort have damaged the area enough that access will be limited.
“We are going to issue a closure order that will probably take effect on Monday,” forest spokesman Andrew Madsen said, adding the fire caused several landslides that have littered access roads. “We have to get that cleaned up before we open it back up.”
While much of the area will remain closed, portions of White Rock Day Use Area not impacted by the fire, Fremont, Paradise and Los Prietos campgrounds and the First Crossing Day Use Area will be open.
Madsen said forest officials are continuing their warnings about the use of fire in the bone-dry forest.
“You know the speed limit on the freeway is 65 mph. But when it’s pouring down rain, it’s probably not a good idea to drive that fast,” Madsen said. “Out here when the wind is blowing, even if you’re in a site that allows campfires, you should think twice before starting one.”