As flames engulfed Stearns Wharf on Nov. 18, 1998, high enough to see for miles, Jose Torres stood at the pier’s entrance with one thought: “We lost our jobs.”
Torres was and still is the general manager of Moby Dick Restaurant, one of the three businesses leveled by a fire that burned about 20 percent of the wharf.
Ten years later, as Torres recalls the day his restaurant was ravaged by flames – and eventually fell through the wharf and into the ocean – he points to a charred three-foot-long mounted ceramic fish on wall of his “new” Moby Dick Restaurant.
“Yes, me and that fish right there,” he said. That’s all that survived.
While the fire caused no injuries or deaths, the Stearns Wharf fire of 1998 put one of Santa Barbara’s most vibrant tourism areas in jeopardy. About 2 million people visit the wharf every year and the sales tax generated by Moby Dick, the Santa Barbara Shell Fish Co. and Mike’s Bait and Tackle Shop – which all burned down – amounted to more than $40,000 per year. Despite the devastation, impressive efforts by about 60 firefighters combined with the help of a sprinkler system under the pier, spared the wharf’s 13 other businesses, which were left open to visitors after the fire. Though the fire started at about 9:40 p.m., it wasn’t extinguished until close to 6 a.m. the following morning and continued to smolder throughout the day.
Steve Cushman, president and chief executive officer of the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce, said despite a huge hole in the pier and the disappearance of several businesses, tourism wasn’t much affected.
“I actually thought it would be a trade-off,” he said. “It would attract as many people to see what had happened.”
It wasn’t until about five months later that the cause of the fire was publicly released. About 9:40 p.m., an electrical short along a corroded high-voltage power line owned by Southern California Edison Co. sparked the fire, according to city fire department investigators. Wind then fanned the flames onto creosote-soaked wooden pilings, which proved difficult to douse. The short happened within feet of Moby Dick Restaurant and ultimately caused more than $10 million in damages. About 600 wood pilings – the columns that hold up the wharf – had to be replaced along with 420 wooden planks.
Although Edison owned the line, it denied responsibility and said it was the city’s job to maintain it. Months of litigation ensued and the issues were eventually settled out of court.
To help rebuild one of Santa Barbara’s most historic structures, the city called on one of the region’s engineering leaders, Penfield & Smith, as well as Santa Barbara-based Cushman Contractors. In a “fast-track” rebuild, the design was being drafted while part of the wharf was being demolished and rebuilt.
“This was obviously a very unique situation where we were in charge of getting that thing reconstructed quickly and having to deal with the water, the weather and the tides,” said Danny Wynn, president of Penfield & Smith. “I just remember it being very challenging. But the guys did an incredible job.”
The reconstruction effort began in mid-February 1999 and was completed and open to visitors by May 27, 2000. The two restaurants, however, did not open until mid-summer.
When asked what has changed on and around the wharf since its 2000 reopening, chamber president Cushman said not much.
“Those are prized leases and they only come up every 20 years,” he said of the wharf’s businesses. Aside from a few remodels and the opening of the Ty Warner Sea Center in 2005, he said the businesses see very little turnover. “They do well and that’s why. Because the No. 1 thing [visitors] see when they come to Santa Barbara is the beach,” Cushman said.
Wynn said one thing that has changed, however, is the safety of the last third section of the wharf and the structures built on it.
“Everything was rebuilt to be much safer and longer lasting,” he said.
Although the wharf was built in 1872 and named for its original financier, John Peck Stearns – a one-legged lawyer from Vermont – nothing from the initial structure remains. The 1998 fire was one of four that has ravaged the wharf since its creation. Its history is marred with destruction, mainly caused by storms, earthquakes and of course fire. And while the wharf is mainly a tourist attraction today, it was an integral part of Santa Barbara’s commerce until World War II.
“Before Stearns Wharf, of course the only way to get here was by ship but we didn’t have a deep-water wharf, so people had to be rowed to shore,” said Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society. “There was no easy way to offload cargo ships … and the only other way was by stagecoach and that was obviously not good for hauling cargo. It was a tough trip; it took like eight hours to get from here to Los Olivos.”
A fire in 1986 destroyed the Sea Center, which is on an outstretched limb of the wharf. It now operates as the Ty Warner Sea Center. A previous fire in 1973 destroyed the wharf’s Harbor Restaurant and was followed by the wharf’s closure from 1975 to 1980 for renovation.
But it’s the horrific images of a wharf with towering flames that stays in the mind of Jose Torres, so much so that he has a photo of the fire on a wall just inside Moby Dick’s entrance. The restaurant’s general manager said fire prevention is often a topic at the staff’s monthly safety meetings.
With fires occurring about every decade on the wharf, Steve Cushman reflected on the 10-year anniversary and wondered when the next one will be. “Fires on the wharf every 10 years – I guess we better warn everybody,” he said.