YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

California and the West

Quarter of Pier Destroyed in Fire

Blaze: Four businesses on Santa Barbara landmark are wiped out. Moby Dick's co-owner says he will rebuild.


SANTA BARBARA — Restaurant manager Mike Borrayo closed out the cash register and locked up the Moby Dick seafood house for the night around 9:30 Wednesday, with no sign of any trouble.

Within minutes, he was hearing radio reports of a raging fire and did a speedy U-turn to find the restaurant engulfed in a wall of flame, the victim of the latest disaster to hit one of California's most historic piers.

"The building was secured. To see it in an inferno in five or 10 minutes, I'm just speechless. I have no clue what happened. It's devastating," he said.

The third major blaze at Stearns Wharf in the last 25 years wiped out about a quarter of the 650-yard-long pier, destroying four structures and causing an estimated $5 million to $10 million in damage.

The fire appears to have started at or near Moby Dick, a popular restaurant at the end of the pier, fire officials said. Three other nearby structures--another seafood restaurant, a bait and tackle shop, and a tourist kiosk--were also destroyed.

As the pier continued to smolder Thursday and charred debris floated in the nearby surf, workers began leveling what was left of the gutted buildings and searched for clues to the cause of the fire. Officials said it will take days before they have a preliminary explanation, although they added that there was no immediate evidence of arson.

Moby Dick co-owner Al Steinman took some solace from the day's few bright moments, waiting anxiously to see what workers were able to salvage from the wrecked restaurant he has operated for 30 years.

"They got the safe! Great!" Steinman exclaimed when told of the workers' latest find. Inside the safe was a few thousand dollars--including tip money he planned to distribute to waiters and waitresses who are now out of work.

Nearby sat an American flag that had flown over the restaurant. It appeared barely singed.

Steinman said he has fire insurance for the building and plans to rebuild the establishment.

"Look around," he said, gesturing toward Santa Barbara's famed coastline. "You see the most beautiful spot in the world. You've got to keep going. . . . Life goes on. The important thing is nobody got hurt."

For all its attractions, Stearns Wharf has had a somewhat star-crossed existence. In just the last three decades, it has suffered major fires, oil spills, storm damage and even a barge crash.

"The pier's had a rough history," said Judd Conelly, the city's harbor maintenance supervisor. "But the people love it. It's the central attraction for the locals and the tourists. It has a lot of history."

The pier was built in 1872 to serve cargo and passenger ships. In the 1930s, gamblers boarded floating casinos at the pier, which was turned into a naval installation during World War II. It has been rebuilt and modified several times in more recent years--in part because of its spate of disasters--to accommodate more than a dozen restaurants, gift shops, a museum and other attractions. It is considered one of the oldest and longest wooden piers on the West Coast.

As Mick Kronman, a city harbor commissioner, said Thursday while surveying the damage at the pier: "This is one of the jewels of the city. This and the mission. . . . This is obviously a sad moment in Santa Barbara history, but I'm very confident we'll get this all rebuilt. This place has gone through lots of trials by fire and it's been fixed every time."

Despite the damage, business owners on the pier said they were eager to reopen. Officials expect to allow foot traffic on the pier again today, but it won't be soon enough for Camille Ewing, owner of the Devil & Deep Blue Sea gift shop, who came in Friday to confirm that his stuffed animals, sweatshirts and other trinkets had not suffered smoke damage.

"We would open today if they would let people on the pier," Ewing said.

The fire nearly spread to a cluster of businesses surrounding Ewing's store on the pier's east side. When firefighters arrived about 9:40 p.m. Wednesday, "there was nothing but a solid wall of flames under the pier," attacking the buildings from below, said Santa Barbara Fire Capt. Steve Felix, who was with one of the early crews. The fire was burning intensely on the pier's west side, and the chances of containing it "didn't look good. It was real nip and tuck," Felix said.

Initially, winds of up to 20 mph deterred firefighters as they fought the blaze from both the pier and Coast Guard fireboats, and the petroleum-based creosote coating that protects the pier from saltwater also fueled the flames, authorities said.

But firefighters from at least half a dozen agencies were able to pry the wooden planks off the floor of the pier to get at the fire. They were aided by a sprinkler-type system installed a decade ago across the bottom of the pier.

Los Angeles Times Articles