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Voices from the Fire

Evacuees and Victims Share Their Stories of Jesusita


Stories from UCSB’s Red Cross Shelter: Friday, May 8

The Recreation Center at UCSB has been transformed into the largest temporary shelter in recent Santa Barbara history, according to Marjorie Wass, public relations officer for the Santa Barbara chapter of the Red Cross.

Last night, 608 Jesusita Fire evacuees spent the night on cots in the university’s MultiActivity Court (MAC), while the Red Cross shelter at Dos Pueblos High School housed another 240. In contrast, Wass said the Red Cross provided shelter for about 400 people during the Painted Cave Fire of 1990, and housed less than 300 evacuees during last year’s Tea Fire. The maximum capacity of the MAC is said to be 900, and Red Cross staff and volunteers are preparing for an influx of evacuees should the winds pick up tonight, forcing more mandatory evacuations.

Late this morning, those displaced by the fire rested on cots and milled around in the MAC’s lobby area. As Salvation Army volunteers cleared up from breakfast, I spoke to Robert and Zoila Peters, who lost their home at 984 Camino del Rio in the Painted Cave Fire, and rebuilt on the same site. Their neighborhood is just east of Tucker’s Grove.

Last night, we had to run for our lives again,” said Zoila. “We couldn’t imagine it would happen. We kept watching and watching, and suddenly the mountain just exploded.” Robert, lying on his back on a nearby cot, added, “They came by with a megaphone and said, ‘Out, out.’ We went to a neighbor’s house, and then at 4 a.m. we had to jump up and run for our lives again.”

The neighbor they had gone to stay with was 79-year-old Betty Wittak, who has lived at 5539 San Patricio Drive, off Kellogg Avenue, since 1972. Wittak, who accompanied the Peterses to the Red Cross shelter, said she had called her adult children on Thursday morning to assure them that she was fine, only to watch the fire surge toward her neighborhood later that evening. The grandmother of five lives alone, and said she rarely watches television news “until something big is going on.” Resting on her cot, Wittak said she hoped to get some rest tonight. “I haven’t slept a wink,” she said, declining to have her photograph taken. Both Wittak and the Peterses expect their houses escaped last night’s firestorm, and hope to return home soon.

Nearby, Phil Jones of 466 Arango Drive, off Turnpike, lay on his cot, occasionally rubbing his face with the back of his hand. He spoke with exhausted resignation. “We’re just south of Tucker’s Grove,” he explained. “We were one of the last areas to be evacuated.” Jones said they received a Reverse 911 call about 30 minutes before the phone rang again, ordering them to evacuate immediately. Staying with Jones and his wife that night were his son and daughter-in-law, their three children, cats, dog, and hamster, all of whom had evacuated their Northridge Road house the previous night. Jones said it was impossible to see flames by the time they loaded the car to leave. “It was so smoky,” he said. “We just had to get the hell out.”

It was about 9:15 p.m. on Thursday when UCSB Adventure Programs employee Natalie Brechtel realized it was time to evacuate her house at 3842 Center Avenue, just off Foothill Road. “I was standing on my roof and watching the flames leaping from ridge to ridge,” she said. “It was spectacular, it’s sad to say. From about 7 to 9 p.m., I watched them work themselves down one canyon, then up onto the next foothill. You know the way the embers in a campfire glow when the actual fire goes out, and they’re just mesmerizing? It was like that - but it was the whole mountain.” When Brechtel finally saw it was time to retreat, she drove to a friend’s house. Realizing that it was already packed with other evacuees, she headed for UCSB, where at midnight the Red Cross shelter was not yet very busy. “I went to sleep and there were plenty of beds, but when I woke up at 6 a.m., there were people sleeping on the floor,” she said. “I took the tag off my bed, and immediately a guy asked if he could lie down.” Brechtel said her house had been without water pressure for a few days. “Today was my first shower since Tuesday,” she said, posing for a photo. “I was pretty stoked.”

Though there’s no telling what kind of conditions tonight may bring, officials are preparing for winds similar to those that stoked the flames last night. Come tomorrow, there may be a need for further temporary shelter for those affected by the Jesusita Fire. The Santa Barbara Chapter of the Red Cross is actively seeking volunteers. Those interested must register for a full-day of volunteer training, which will be held tomorrow, Saturday, May 9, starting at 10 a.m. at the Goleta 1st Presbyterian Church, 6067 Shirrel Way. Registration may be done at the church starting at 9:15 a.m., as well as at the Goleta Valley Community Center, 5679 Hollister Avenue. Call 729-6885 or visit sbredcross.org for more information.

-Elizabeth Schwyzer

Frustrated Evacuees in Goleta

Janet Vanrenterghem, a San Roque resident, was situated under a tree in her RV in the parking lot of what used to be Linens ‘N Things. Other cars were also scattered across the lot, filled with belongings, some even with pets. Almost every person in the lot held a cell phone, trying to locate other evacuation sites they could go to after being turned away throughout the night.

We came here at midnight last night because we had been staying at Stow Grove Park. We decided [to go] at midnight after seeing the fire move so far; it was too close to Foothill and in too much of a brush area,” said Vanrenterghem. “We heard you could park at Costco parking. We stayed the night, and in the morning they asked us to move behind Home Depot. So we went and moved there and it was pretty empty and we parked in the shade, until they told us that we couldn’t park there.”

Vanrenterghem’s husband is driving one of their other cars with her children and one of her friend’s children. In addition, Vanrenterghem’s mother had been evacuated from her home in Montecito, leaving both parties with no other place to go. Vanrenterghem has her pets in her RV because she was turned away from animal shelters that have been declared filled to capacity.

I went and parked behind Linens ‘N Things. There was a road of parking that was empty and there was a parking area that said ‘Chumash Casino Parking Only,’ so I called Chumash, and they said, ‘We don’t really care, but we don’t really have the right to tell you that you can park there. It’s up to the management.’ Along came this guy, patrolling in a cart, saying that [the owner of the parking lot] said we couldn’t park there either. Thirty-thousand people are evacuated - where are we going to go?”

(As this interaction happened, Camino Real Marketplace management began arranging for a place for evacuees to park at nearby Girsh Park. You can read more on this development here.

Dan Steel, a former construction worker, received a Reverse 911 call at 1:30 a.m. on Friday morning to evacuate his duplex in the Cathedral Oaks area, near Dos Pueblos High School. He, his wife, and his family had already packed their two cars and their RVs prior to the call. Steel suffers from respiratory problems and was eager to evacuate to anywhere with better air quality. Steel and his family, along with his brother who also received a Reverse 911 call to evacuate his Goleta home, headed to Goleta’s West Beach to spend the night. They were asked to leave at around 7 a.m. to make room for cars and trucks that had been decimated by the fire.

I don’t understand where they want 30,000 of us to go. Why everyone is kicking everyone out, I just don’t get it.” According to Steel, he and his family were frustrated, running on two hours of sleep, and figured that they would try Costco or Kmart’s parking lots. “If Wal-Mart lets people camp out year-round, I thought maybe Costco or Kmart would do the same thing for those suffering from the fire.”

Steel was able to find a shady area in the Girsh Park parking lot and said that the other evacuees there have banded together to help keep an eye out for one another. Steel managed to book two rooms at a Motel 6 for tomorrow evening, but was irritated that they were still charging nearly $100 a night.

I’ve volunteered in previous fires before, I’ve helped guide traffic and build roadblocks in times of disaster. Now, I can’t because I’m old and I’m not in good shape, but I’m just hoping that other people will do their part.”

-Sara Tan

Kim Garden: 2685 Dorking Place

Kim Garden, a resident at 2685 Dorking Place off Kenmore Place in Mission Canyon, believes her home may be destroyed. Garden said she was at work when she lost power around 3 p.m. Wednesday and looked out of her office on East Montecito Street to see flames leaping on the hillside above Milpas Street. Rushing home, she struggled to pull together a few belongings and evacuate. With her husband out of the country on business and her mother visiting from out of town, she loaded her dog and a few personal items into her car and fled Mission Canyon late Wednesday afternoon. “Our neighbors were panicking because they had three cars and were trying to get them all loaded and out of the area,” she said. “They asked my mother to drive one of their cars to Goleta, which of course she did.” Garden said she was in contact with one of her neighbors, who believes from seeing television news that her house may also have burned.

Garden said she sat watching television and seeing images of her friend Dr. Bill Koonce‘s home as it caught fire and burned Wednesday evening. The Koonce residence is on Holly Road.

When the wind blows through this canyon, it’s crazy. It just whips through here,” Garden said. “I want to bake cookies or make sandwiches for the firemen. They’re fighting a really tough fight.” In the meantime, Garden is safe at her father-in-law’s house in the Hidden Valley neighborhood, and has been using Skype and email to stay in touch with her husband, Peter. “He’s beside himself,” Garden said, “but we are both safe, we have each other, the dog is fine, and that’s what’s important.”

-ES

Dick Davidson: 1502 Mission Canyon Road

At 2:45 on Thursday afternoon, I spoke by phone to Dick Davidson, who evacuated his house at 1502 Mission Canyon Road on Tuesday evening. The house is at the very top of Mission Canyon Road, where a private road heads up into the hills past a number of residences.

Dick and his wife, Susan, both teach at Santa Barbara Middle School. “I was standing on the school field finishing flag football class when I saw the smoke and said, ‘That’s bad,’” he recalled. “I kind of hoped it was a house fire, though you never want to wish that on anyone. I went upstairs and looked out the window and saw that it was clearly in the brush.” After the Zaca Fire in August 2007, the Davidsons had packed their most important possessions in boxes and put others in storage across town, so packing was a not a problem. “We stayed until we could see the flames, and then we got out of there,” Davidson said. The couple spent the night with their dogs in their camper van on the school’s campus and stayed through the school day on Wednesday until the smoke on the property at St. Anthony’s seminary forced them to retreat further. Davidson reported that the traffic he faced Wednesday afternoon was the worst he’d ever seen in Santa Barbara.

At the time of our conversation, Davidson had heard from Tim Steele, president of the Mission Canyon Association, who said that his own house off Tunnel Road was lost. Davidson remained hopeful about his property and those of his neighbors, but knew that friends on Montrose, Cheltenham, Spyglass, and Holly roads had not fared as well. Shortly after our conversation, a posting on independent.com confirmed that 1502 Mission Canyon Road was still standing. Upon receiving this news, a choked-up Davidson replied, “Thank you. Thank you for letting us know.”

-ES

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