On Tuesday afternoon, the smell of scorched wood sweetened the air around the old Mission Dam at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Downstream were sycamore and oak trees-some seemingly dead, others still green-as well as the director’s residence, reduced to a chimney when flames raged up the creek two weeks ago. On the right side of the creek, the popular Pritchett Trail and valuable Channel Islands collection had burned beyond recognition. On the left side, the Indian Steps were blackened but not destroyed, as was the redwood grove slightly upstream, where green undergrowth mixed with charred soil and hillside.
This patchwork of destruction and survival is a perfect microcosm for what remains in the foothills of Santa Barbara after the Jesusita Fire, which severely damaged “in excess of two-thirds of the garden,” said Andrew Wyatt, director of horticulture, including the obliteration of about 5,500 individual plants and heat damage to another 3,800. The fire also took out the Campbell Bridge, the redwood ring exhibit, the three-story Gane House, the Porter Path, and some plant-growing sheds. But firefighters-thanks to hydrants the garden installed in 2007, a remote-controlled irrigation system, and the presence on site of director Edward Schneider during the fire-managed to save a number of critical buildings and the centerpiece meadow, among other parts of the 78-acre garden.
The garden’s immediate focus is on raising the necessary cash to replace tools and vehicles, almost all of which perished in the fire. A campaign managed to bring in more than $20,000 by May 16, an impressive tally for any week-long effort, but especially considering that the garden’s communications infrastructure remains completely down. Said spokesperson Nancy Johnson, whose personal cell phone is the garden’s only current conduit to the outside world, “It’s an incredible time.”
Johnson was also referring to the other controversial fires that the garden finds itself fighting before the public eye: (1) the 62 volunteers who began a 30-day strike on April 23, protesting alleged financial mismanagement by the director and Board of Trustees; (2) the April layoffs that cut longstanding and beloved staff members; and (3) the ongoing struggle to win neighbors’ hearts and county planning officials’ minds with the Vital Mission Plan, a four-years-in-the-making, garden-wide “improvement” project that proponents say is required to ensure financial viability.
Even before the fire, this toxic milieu was affecting the morale of many of the remaining staffers-“It’s fear and loathing,” said one insider this week-and appears to also finally be attracting the attention of the Board of Trustees, which currently consists of 10 members although the garden’s bylaws mandate a minimum of 15. In a May 7 letter, the board’s chair, Fife Symington, told the striking volunteers that their demands could not be met, but other boardmembers are reportedly more sympathetic to the worries of the volunteers. Their next meeting is today, Thursday, May 21, and it’s sure to be a hotter-than-usual discussion.
But on Tuesday, Wyatt kept it cool, downplaying any impacts that the volunteer strike is having on day-to-day operations, a reality no doubt aided by the fact that the fire upset any sort of regular scheduling. Volunteer leader Christine Riesenfeld, however, disputes his assertion that the majority of volunteers didn’t work the grounds and said that those on strike who expressed an interest in helping to rebuild the garden were told that they would have to be interviewed by the director. Wyatt said that was to discuss safety concerns; Johnson said it was because Schneider wanted to “welcome them back.” Riesenfeld said the volunteers will decide whether to extend their moratorium this weekend.
The fire will also affect the Vital Mission Plan, though it remains unclear exactly how. Johnson said that the county has been supportive as the garden analyzes what, if anything, should be changed. “We’re all trying to take the appropriate path,” said Johnson.