Bomb scare in Solvang, Calif.

Discarded WWII-era artillery shell leads to mandatory evacuation

Photo: Santa Barbara Sheriff This decades-old shell was found in a dumpster in the Danish capital of America.

Photo: Santa Barbara Sheriff
This decades-old shell was found in a dumpster in the Danish capital of America.

Larrie Wanberg
Features Editor

It’s an eerie feeling when you pick up the motel phone and a recorded message from the sheriff’s office declares an immediate mandatory evacuation of the central downtown section of Solvang, CA.

The call was a reverse 911 alert to clear a five-block long by three-block wide area —the central business district of the “Danish Capitol of America—a popular tourist town of 5,500 with dozens of hotels, several restaurants on each block and quaint shops lining the streets.

The whole event started at 3:30 in the afternoon with people eating in coffee shops and bakeries or carrying shopping bags along the sidewalks.

Perhaps 20 or more police, sheriff, patrol and search-and-rescue vehicles descended on the town and street barricades set-up with “crime scene tape” sealing off streets and alleyways.

Soon, military vehicles arrived with a “bomb squad” from the nearby Vandenberg Air Base.

Word on the street was that a “military ordinance device” was discovered in a dumpster in the middle of town.

The instruction was for people within the zone to shelter at the Veterans Memorial building, where a Red Cross receiving center was set-up.

Within a short time, the streets were barren of people or activity. Tourists left their uneaten food on plates, shopkeepers scratched their heads for a moment, then closed the doors and dismissed their staff. It was an orderly evacuation in calm Scandinavian-type style.

Police went door-to-door to alert residents of a potential explosive threat.

I left my hotel room earlier and drove to a neighboring town but had difficulty and many delays in returning to Solvang because of barricades. I walked around the perimeter and talked with a few deputies.

I asked a man in uniform if there were any medical emergencies, telling him of military experience as a member of a “crisis management team” in military hospitals in times past.

“No,” he said. “Someone tossed a WWII artillery shell in a dumpster,” he said.

“Thank God it’s not a crime scene,” I responded.

“Not yet, at least,” he said. “The bomb is still there.”

Eventually, I was allowed back to my hotel room at the edge of the perimeter.

Then at 10:30 p.m., the room phone rang again with the same instructions. Moments later, the hotel desk phoned advising a renewed mandatory evacuation.

I proceeded to the Veterans Memorial building where about 250 people gathered, served by a dozen Red Cross Volunteers with hot chocolate.

Some were in the bathrobes, small children were asleep on blankets on the floor, school-age children were texting their peers, a few in wheelchairs and groups of neighborhood residents clustered in circles, exchanging stories and speculations.

TV crews were interviewing officials and evacuees. As a “journalist,” I listened in and began asking my own questions—mainly one leading question, “What did you take with you when you left your place?”

People with dogs on a leash circled outside on the grass like a pet reunion. They had one obvious answer. One dog was tugging his favorite pillow. Some shared dog toys brought by their owners.

Another obvious answer was the youth with cell phones or iPads. Few looked up from being seated on the floor along the wall.

Other answers were: blanket, bananas, water and cheese puffs, a wine cooler, vitamin water, a book, a flashlight, and the most interesting one to me, “Fig Newtons.”

Cell phones were the single source of communication, both as a light source when walking in the dark, as a news source, and as a means of talking with family or friends on the other side of the barricades.

After midnight the device was transported out of town to a safe area and exploded it with a “boom” that rattled windows in the valley.

When the threat was removed, it was suddenly like Saturday night in a small town—the streets bustled with people who stopped to visit, cars cruised around the alleyways, and life continued in a rural town where people felt they were being protected.

The next morning, the coffee circles at cafes and bakeries resumed, but with new stories to tell.

This article originally appeared in the April 25, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Larrie Wanberg

Larrie Wanberg, 1920–2021, contributed features to The Norwegian American for many years, drawing on eight decades of life experience highlighted by three career recognitions: as a researcher through a Fulbright Scholarship to Norway in 1957; as a health care provider in behavioral science through a 27-year military career and awarded upon retirement in 1981 the highest non-combat medal, the Legion of Merit medal; as an educator, through a 50-year career in college education, culminating in the 2010 Public Scholar award at the UND Center for Community Engagement. Wanberg passed away in May, 2021.