FIRE TALK: While the Jesusita Fire is marching steadily into the comfortable annals of our town’s history, memories and second-guessing boldly linger. For anyone tuned into that conflagration, basically a three-day theater piece of unfolding and unpredictable turns, the incident may seem retrospectively like a surreal-yet also hyper-real-module of geo-cultural time in this fantastical place we call Santa Barbara. Other fires have been more devastating, in certain terms: last year’s Tea Fire-one short, devastating night-claimed 200-plus structures, compared to Jesusita’s 80 structure count. In human terms, the Jesusita’s fickle behavior resulted in more firefighter injuries than other fires.
More than other fires in recent memory, though, the Jesusita had the distinctive claim of almost literally sweeping, in syncopated rhythms and patterns, across the mountains so dramatically and intimately laid across the spread of our town. Those very mountains, of course, make up an important part of the mythic appeal of this place, with our Riviera so tightly nestled-and constricted-between the mountains and the sea.
It was possible, from this scribe’s suburban perch close to Foothill Road, to gaze in a kind of transfixed wonder at the steadily expanding fire, its flames licking and leaping their way toward the 154 just across the street. Neighbors convened on the streets, some old-timers recalling the last time there was serious fire in them thar hills above our houses-in 1964. From a close yet seemingly safe distance, untouched by any threatening wind shifts, it was possible to reflect on a certain epoch-leaping sensation. These hills have burned, periodically, for centuries, when this region was the domain of the Chumash, long before the Conquistadores and the slave labor-built Mission and suburban creep and a McStarbux on every block and obscene real estate prices left their indelible marks on the place. Fire is an element of primal power, and primal thought-processing.
Until close to 10 p.m., a police cruiser with a bullhorn and menacing dog in tow crept through the ‘hood, announcing that our evacuation “warning” had now officially graduated to “mandatory,” while we stayed, and gawked, hypnotized. For a couple of days, we joined the swollen ranks-nearly a third of the population-of the displaced. No harm was done, to home or human, both a source of a relief and a stoking of compassion for those not so lucky this time around. But we now know that smugness in this year-round fire season zone is foolhardy. There will always be a next time.
By Paul Wellman (file)