2004 Gaviota Fire
Matt Kettmann

Could it happen here? Could the lovely-to-look-at Montecito foothills become a ring of flame similar to what we saw last week blazing above L.A.’s Griffith Park or Catalina’s Avalon? You bet it could and, according county fire officials and Montecito’s own fire department, it is not a matter of if, but when.

And it won’t be the first time. Since 1950, there have been eight major wildfires in Santa Barbara County’s frontcountry and three of them – Romero, Sycamore, and Coyote – started in Montecito! To rock you out of complacency, here are links to the history of each of our county’s past infernos.

A Prologue

Refugio Fire of 1955

Coyote Fire of 1964

Wellman Fire of 1966

Romero Fire of 1971

Sycamore Fire of 1977

Eagle Fire of 1979

Wheeler Fire of 1985

Painted Cave Fire of 1990

And then there was the Gaviota Fire of 2004, which is where these accompanying photos come from.

Now, that you are on fire with fear – they don’t call me Calamity J’Amy for nothing! – what action can a mere mortal take, other than diving into ostrich position and awaiting the barbeque? The answer lies in protection, prevention, and preparation.

2004 Gaviota Fire
Matt Kettmann

Protection comes from the Montecito Fire District and, on Monday, they went into full awarness mode. “We are officially in full-on, high fire season,” said Chief Kevin Wallace. High fire season status directs public attention to the elevated danger of a possible wildfire by asking citizens to be particularly aware and alert. It steps up abatement notices and the subsequent removal of fire hazards such as weeds, dry brush, or dead trees. It also allows the MFD to create extra patrols, if needed, on particularly hazardous, hot, dry, dangerous days.

The high fire season status is created when dry weather, high resource demand, and threatening conditions merge, and this year the unwelcome trio came together early. Fires across the state and country have already taxed firefighting assets. Montecito, for example, came to mutual aid last week by responding with an engine and four firefighters to the Griffith Park fire.

As well, Montecito is experiencing the third driest year on record, with only seven inches of rain recorded this year, instead of the normal 20-inch average. Vegetation is parched. Wallace said the moisture levels measured in plants in the outback is closer to what would normally be seen in late June. But this is May, and the chaparral is already dense with deadwood.

Prevention comes from citizen action and Chief Wallace is looking for citizen assistance in three areas:

1) Vigilance: “Be vigilant on hot dry days,” he said. “If you see something that gives you even the slightest concern, call the Montecito Fire District. We welcome and appreciate people reporting and that’s why we have a local dispatch working 24-7. Citizens can call 911 or, if they are wavering, they can call our business line at 969-7762.” This year in particular, MFD needs all the watchful eyes it can get. One recent citizen report, for example, has MFD on the lookout for transients camping near hiking trails.

2) Common Sense: “Stay away from the obvious things like welding or working with a metal weed whacker on a hot dry day. Those activities have started a number of fires,” the Chief said.

3) Hazard Abatement: “Make sure foliage is at least 100 feet away from your house and dead tree branches are trimmed. A tree, especially an ornamental or an oak that has been trimmed by an arborist is not nearly as susceptible to fire,” Wallace explained. He also encouraged eucalyptus pruning, as those potential roman candles, sticking up all over Montecito, can be particularly problematic in a fire. “The peeling bark on a eucalyptus carries embers ahead of a fire and proliferates the fire,” Wallace noted.

2004 Gaviota Fire
Matt Kettmann

Preparation can be learned from MERRAG (Montecito Emergency Response and Recovery Action Group). This is a network of trained volunteers who work and live in the Montecito area. Members are taught to respond to a community disaster during the critical first 72 hours following an event. Since 1987, the mutual “self-help” organization has been serving Montecito’s residents with the guidance and support of the Montecito’s fire, water, and sanitary districts. Last month, they helped out with the Riviera evacuation drill and they meet monthly to train.

The training is free and everyone (including that bored teen on summer break) is welcome. MERRAG meets monthly to learn how to respond and help in recovery. Really, Montage Readers, every neighborhood in Montecito should have a representative in this organization learning how to be skilled in civil defense skills! (And if you join, you’ll know where the hospital is and where they hide the extra water.)

The next training session, for example, will prepare the trainees on how and when MERRAG goes into action. The training will be held on June 7 at the Montecito Fire Station at 575 San Ysidro Road, at 3:15 p.m. For information, dial 969-3537 and ask for Geri Simmons-Ventura. (On April 20, Geri Simmons became Mrs. Geri Ventura.)

So dial up, join up, get trained, get involved – otherwise that barbequed chicken served up this summer, well, it just might be you!

NOT A NEWS-PRESS DEPARTURE: Montage has confirmed the imminent departure of Guillaume Doane, editor of the Montecito Journal. Doane will leave the post on May 31 and, until a permanent replacement is found, former editor Jim Buckley will come out of retirement to join his son, publisher Tim Buckley, to pick up the slack. Doane has worked at the Journal for the past three years since graduating from the University of Kansas. While he was raised in Montecito and attended Montecito Union School, he was born in France and now wants return there to pursue a career as an overseas correspondent.

Guillaume Doane
J'Amy Brown

“At this juncture of my life, I want to take advantage of my ability to travel and reacquaint myself with my formative years,” Doane said. Doane holds a dual American-French citizenship and speaks fluent French. He says he is especially looking forward to spending time with his 94-year-old grandfather, who still resides in France.

Doane says the best part of working in Montecito is the small town character. “I loved the day-to-day integration with people who know and understand the community.” But small town character also had its drawbacks. He explained, “Being the editor of small town paper can be a hazard. If you write something personal, you have to be ready to see that person the next day at Vons. If you write bad personal news about somebody in L.A, it is like throwing a pebble, but here in Montecito the reverberation is stronger. It is like throwing a rock, and it takes some strong judgment on the editor’s part.”

Doane rode the Journal editorship during some of the most traumatic Montecito land use cases of the last decade, including the Coral Casino, Westmont, and the Miramar. However, he said his favorite stories involved the Montecito Water District and their failed attempt last year to increase agricultural water rate. “That story seemed to have the most relevancy and impact,” he said.

On a personal note, I first met Guillaume when I was president of the Montecito Association, when he was a cub reporter covering that beat. It was a dubious start, but it has been a joy to watch him grow into not only a solid professional colleague but also, now, a strong competitor. As a young man he stepped up to the plate and faced off with leaders three times his age, and he did it with intelligence, candor , civility – and maybe a bit of that French charm. He worked hard, got it right, and when he didn’t, he apologized. By his endeavors he grew to be a very respected member of our community. Bon voyage, Guillaume! Montecito and Montage will miss you!

THE ZEN RAGE: If The Indy‘s website relaunch and fire fear has you agitated, you might want to consider a place to ponder life, so why not in your very own garden sanctuary?

A garden refuge, according to Montecito landscape designer Pat Brodie (brodiedesign.com), offers a peaceful, natural respite, away from the maddening crowd. She tells Montage these tranquility islands are rapidly becoming a newest rage in Montecito’s newer professionally designed gardens.

Pat Brodie
J'Amy Brown

Pat is a pro in spiritual gardens. She spent four years in Japan and traveled throughout South East Asia. In Montecito, she is known for creating mood gardens, and she says she strives to design a place where people will want to linger and explore. Her work has been featured on many garden tours as well as in Sunset Magazine, the L.A. Times, and on Home and Garden Television. Locally, Pat has created spaces for Dallas and Peter Clark (see the photo gallery) at their handsome beachfront hacienda and Dana and Andrea Newquist‘s sultry tropical haven.

“I really look forward to going my meditation space” said Andrea Newquist, who added the garden sanctuary two years ago “There are no phones and no noise. I feel a oneness with the garden and my life becomes tranquil.”

If you want some tranquility of your own, Pat provides a Montage recipe. She says it is important to create a space that magnetizes all of the senses, but she cautions, be sure the private corner is not too busy. Add a water element or small fountain for sound and a few colorful accent flowers to provide visual stimulation. She says trees add a pleasing rustle of leaves, along with a place for birds to nest and chirp melodic harmony. Finally, Pat recommends adding something exotic for texture and interest, like an oriental statue, veering away, she suggests, from the standard and expected Santa Barbara theme.

If you want to see how these Zen pieces come together, two of Pat’s gardens have been selected for display at this Sunday’s Sacred Spaces Tour. Five secret Montecito peace gardens will be open for the benefit of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara.

The event is chaired by artist Danyel Dean, along with Jack and Rose Herschorn, who promise this exclusive tour of Montecito and Summerland gardens will not be your grandmother’s garden tour. For information, call 967-5741 ext. 104. Tickets are limited and cost $65.


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