LOS ANGELES AND MONTECITO — A smoldering bonfire built by students on a ridge-top overlooking Montecito apparently sparked last week's disastrous Tea fire, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Tuesday.
Ten men and women, ranging in age from 18 to 22, had gathered at an abandoned property called the Teahouse late Wednesday night and built a bonfire to warm themselves, Brown said.
They told fire investigators that they thought the bonfire was out when they left early Thursday morning. But embers continued to smolder for more than 12 hours and were reignited by Santa Ana-type winds that evening, authorities said.
In what became one of Santa Barbara County's most destructive wildfires, fast-moving flames destroyed 210 homes and damaged nine others. At least 25 people were injured, three of them with burns.
Brown told a news conference that investigators believe that the group did not intend to start a wildfire.
"It appears this was the result of carelessness," he said.
Brown declined to identify any of the men and women involved, saying that the matter was still under investigation. However, he said they all lived locally and attended the same school. He declined to say which one.
Westmont College, a Christian university with 1,200 students, sits immediately below the mountain ridge where the Teahouse is located. But Brown would not confirm or deny that students from the private campus were involved.
"I won't comment on that," Brown said.
The group could face charges of negligence or recklessness with fire, he said. It will be up to the district attorney's office to decide what, if any, criminal charges will be filed once the investigation is completed, Brown said.
Investigators learned about the group's late-night outing from an anonymous tipster who called a fire hotline, Brown said. Each person was then contacted and questioned about the night's activities, he said.
"They have been cooperative," Brown said of the suspects.
Nancy Phinney, a Westmont spokeswoman, said the college did not think that any of its students were involved. The school lost several buildings and 14 faculty homes in the fire.
"We have been working closely and cooperating fully with fire officials and at no point has anyone said that any of our students have been implicated," Phinney said.
Asked whether the Teahouse property was a student hangout, she said that dating back to at least the 1960s, "Westmont students have known that area. . . . It's very near our campus."
Other colleges in the area include the Brooks Institute and UC Santa Barbara.
News about the fire's cause spread rapidly in Montecito and Santa Barbara. Jack Milton, who lost the ocean-view home he had lived in for more than three decades and all of his belongings, said he was angered to learn about the group's apparent carelessness.
"I hope they press charges to deter anyone else from doing something so stupid," Milton said. "Anyone with fire up in those hills is just ignorant."
The Tea fire is hardly the first caused by partyers. Authorities charged five men who started an illegal campfire in a cave in Malibu's Corral Canyon with sparking a November 2007 blaze that razed 53 homes, 35 outbuildings, 37 vehicles and one mobile home.
Residents later sued the state, contending that officials had failed to heed warnings from neighbors about late-night parties and campers causing fire hazards in the area.
In recent years, authorities have stepped up prosecutions of people who caused wildfires, even if they did so accidentally.
On Monday, a mentally ill homeless man was sentenced to 45 months in federal prison and ordered to pay more than $100 million in restitution for starting wildfires in 2002 and 2006 that burned more than 162,000 acres in the Los Padres National Forest. Steven Emory Butcher, 50, had been convicted in February of igniting at his campsite the monthlong Day fire that injured 18 people and destroyed 11 structures. He also was convicted of starting the Ellis fire four years earlier.
Last year, two laborers repairing a broken water pipe on a Santa Ynez ranch sparked the Zaca fire, one of the largest in California history. It burned 375 square miles of wilderness in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and cost $118 million. The men, Santiago Iniguez Cervantes and Jose Jesus Cabrera, were charged with felonies, although a judge recently threw out the most serious charges.
Fire experts noted last year that arsonists were responsible for only 7% of wildfires.
Most were set accidentally, including by power tools close to dry brush, burning trash, untended campfires and downed power lines. Lightning strikes accounted for about 5% of wildfires, authorities said.