Voices of the Evacuated

Steve Dunn, a Mountain Drive resident who was not allowed to go to his home and worried about his 90 year-old father, gets a welcome text message that his family evacuated safely.
Paul Wellman

While it is unclear precisely which addresses have burned, reports are that more than 2,500 people have evacuated, with more than 200 hunkered at the San Marcos High School shelter, many watching the map with a view to trying to figure out if their homes and those of their friends and neighbors are still standing.

The Independent will continue to add personal experiences of the fire to the bottom of this post:

UPDATE: Mountain Drive Community

Trace Robinson’s home at 356 East Mountain Drive was still standing as of this morning, but many Mountain Drive homes burned to the ground.

Trace Robinson and her family lived at 356 East Mountain Drive, next to the Tea Gardens, where the Tea Fire originated. It is near the heart of the historic Mountain Drive community. Robinson’s house is one of very few still standing there.

Robinson said she was at home, getting ready for a family dinner when her next-door neighbor’s young daughter, very excited, said to call 911. “I went out and saw flames up at the arches at the Tea Gardens,” she said. She went inside to call 911 but couldn’t get through, because her cell AT&T cell coverage is not very good from her house.

Robinson went to report the fire to her daughter and her daughter’s fiance, who live next door; they hadn’t seen the fire either. Robinson explained that because they were so close to the Tea Gardens, the fire was difficult to see from their vantage point.

She alerted other neighbors.

Robinson said she and her family did not have time to gather things to take with them, despite the fact that they are “very fire conscious and had all our stuff ready to go – papers in boxes and a mental list of pictures on wall that we wanted to take.”

After her daughter’s house burned, a fire broke out in Robinson’s garage. The home of neighbors Zoe and Sean Stevens – a father and daughter who lived at 75 West Mountain Drive, atop Coyote Road – also burned, after which they came over to Robinson’s house and started hosing down her garage. The Stevenses, who are in the Mountain Drive Volunteer Fire Department, ran out of water in their fire truck but were able to summon firefighters who put out the garage blaze.

“It’s amazing how after losing your house you could have the heart to go over and save someone else’s house,” Robinson said.

Robinson and family members went back up this morning, between 9 and 10 a.m., to grab some possessions, but the smoke was overwhelming and firefighters asked them to leave. They saw all of their neighbors’ houses burned. “Only mine and Gaby’s are still standing,” Robinson said. “We are hoping the winds don’t come up and burn them too.”

The homes of several of her family members who live within a mile east or west of her on Mountain Drive – the homes of her father-in-law, her mother-in-law, her two sisters-in-law, and her nephew – were among those that burned to the ground.

Robinson is presently staying at the Hotel Mar Monte, which is offering discount rates to evacuees, courtesy of Santa Barbara Bank & Trust. “I’ve had 100 people call and offer help; food, places to stay. It’s unbelievable what my friends, what people in my community, are doing. I’m just blown away.”

Mt. Calvary Retreat House Burned

It is with great sadness that I share that Mt. Calvary Retreat House was completely lost last night in the Tea Fire. I am struck with such a sense of grief for this beautiful and special place, also the current residence of 12 monks. I am devastated for them and the loss of their sacred home.

I am also in shock and disbelief, as just nine hours ago I was joined in community with 20 of my colleagues to explore issues of leadership and renewal. The serenity and spirituality of the Mt. Calvary Retreat House allowed for an environment of deep introspect and close connection with one another.

I am grateful to have had that meaningful experience with my peers in such a special place, and of course even more so now that that place is gone forever. I am also extremely grateful that all of us evacuated and are safe. I hope and pray for the monks’ health and safety also. Mt. Calvary Retreat House – gone but not forgotten. – Monica Spear, Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara

Reportedly the home of Retired Santa Barbara police officer Payne Green burned to the ground. Payne reportedly also lost a home in the historic Sycamore Canyon Fire.
Paul Wellman

Confirmed: Payne Green’s Home Burns for Second Time

Retired Santa Barbara police officer Payne Green, who lost his home in the 1977 Sycamore Canyon Fire, may have lost it again last night. Green and his housemate, John McGlinchy, stayed as long as they could, hosing down the roof until an oak tree and leaves caught fire in the yard. They then fled amid thick smoke and embers from their Sycamore Canyon Road home. “Your lungs can only hold so much air,” McGlinchy said, describing a sense of suffocation near the oxygen-consuming inferno. Heading into town, they paused on Mission Canyon Road for a yearling deer running along the road near the Old Mission. UPDATE: It has been confirmed that Payne Green’s house was burned to the ground.

Montecito Planning Commission member and Mountain Dr. resident Claire Gottsdanker takes one last look before evacuating her house
Paul Wellman

Montecito Planning Commissioner Evacuates

It is not yet confirmed that Claire Gottsdanker’s home burned, but at the time she fled, Gottsdanker was fairly confident that it was doomed to do so, and subsequent reports indicate that it probably did.

Andrew Bermant’s Home Lost

Architect Andrew Bermant lost his home in the 1964 Coyote Fire and again in the Tea Fire. “We understand it’s part of the risk of living in Santa Barbara,” he said at a press conference, where he was introduced by State Assemblymember Pedro Nava. His family had an emergency plan set up. He was on his way to pick up his son from soccer practice when his wife called from home, and they met at the Biltmore, as planned. “Now the thing is for our whole community to come together. Every end is a new beginning.” He added that although they may have lost photographs, they still have the memories.

Stories from the Evacuation Shelter: Isabelle Walker Reports

No Reverse 911 Call:Barbara Olitzky told reporter Isabelle Walker that she was spending a quiet evening at her home at 950 Coyote Road on a school night with her five-year-old son and her husband, a Santa Barbara City College professor, with no idea that a fire was raging outside. Olitzky was just putting her son to bed at 7:15 when she got a call from an out-of-town friend who asked after her welfare and informed her that the area was being evacuated.

She went outside to see embers the size of a half-charcoal hitting her back door. The property next door was in flames.

The family evacuated down Coyote Road, where many cars were parked, then joined about 160 other evacuees at the Red Cross emergency shelter at San Marcos High School. They called Rabbi Zalmy from Santa Barbara Chabbad because her son was unable to sleep in the shelter; he offered them a room in his house. Now they are trying to discover whether their house is burned while their son spends the day at his play group.

Most troubling to Olitzky is that she never received a Reverse 911 call.

She had made longstanding emergency preparations – had packed photographs and other things – but did not have the time to load them into her car. “I had a boy in one hand and a dog [leash] in another,” Olitzky said, adding that her son, her dog, and her husband are fine.

Holocaust Survivor’s Home Still Standing This Morning

Marion Fickett was at the San Marcos High evacuation center looking for her friend Helga Carden, a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, reports Isabelle Walker. Fickett said she was having dinner at Helga’s house at 6 p.m. when they heard engines and noticed smoke. Fickett left to tend to her house, but has not seen her friend since; she wants Helga to know that Helga’s house on Chase Drive between Sycamore Canyon and Barker Pass was still standing as of 11 a.m. on Friday, November 14. Marion could see it from Alston Road.

Ben Ciccati, Santa Barbara Independent illustrator and editorial designer, 320 Mountain Drive

We were hanging out at home, 320 East Mountain Drive, and it was real windy, one of those crazy windy nights. [My wife] Michelle was right behind Westmont at our friends’ house called Oakley. There’s a clearing where you can always see the arches of the Tea Garden.

I was baking cornbread to take down to the potluck where she was.

She called and said, “Come as quick as you can, there’s a fire at the Tea Garden.” I didn’t grab anything but cash and wallet and the baby (Chloe Bee, age one) and just jammed as fast as I could, honking my horn.

We watched it burn and it just got bigger and bigger. About 20 minutes later we left for Lemon Grove Lane in Montecito; sat in traffic at Cold Spring for about nine minutes. That’s when we saw the first fire trucks going up.

My friend Abe went up to get his mom on Mountain Drive and saw two kids who had flipped a car and were walking around disoriented, so he picked them up and took them with him.

The rest of the night was just stuff we heard … But this morning I went up at seven, before they had set up roadblocks I guess. I got up to my house without much problem. There are three homes I know of on my curve that survived – from Tea Gardens to Coyote – Trace Robinson’s, Gaby Hayum’s, and a guy named Bruce’s place. On the other side, on West Mountain Drive, the Lackner’s home is still up, and Jeff Johnson’s home is still up, probably because we had a volunteer fire truck up there.

But there is really nothing salvageable up there; if anybody is thinking of heading up there I’d just wait. Unless one of those [surviving] homes is yours, I wouldn’t go up there at all until they put out all the gas fires and stuff. It’s just a toxic mess up there.

It’s weird to see – things made of stone that are just cracked and gone. There were a lot of pets up there. I saw a couple of fried animals.

I thought I’d find my pants in the washing machine because they were soaking wet. That thing just vaporized – not even a hint of a washing machine.

The house was a rented adobe and redwood house. The adobe is still standing, amazingly enough.

There’s really nothing left. It’s not going to be the same for a long, long time.

As told to Martha Sadler

View Ciccati’s photos in the gallery above, including California’s first hot tub, burned in the Tea Fire.

On Las Canoas Road, Plumber Fills Firefighters’ Tanks

Artist Patty Look Lewis tells the story of how Peter Kornbluth, a plumber by trade, saved her home and others, having years ago tapped into a water main in preparation for the inevitable. Lewis had evacuated with her husband Walter, her daughter Estelle, and her two dogs. There are three houses on the property: That of the landlord, Kornbluth, and below it his mother-in-law Laura Bissel’s home and next to that, the Lewis’s home. Location: 1976 Las Canoas Road, adjacent to Skofield Park on the Mission Canyon side.

“In the two lower houses horses were being ridden off the property, down toward Mission Canyon to be evacuated, and we were loading up our cars. Everybody on property was ready to leave except for Peter. He had parked his truck facing downhill, but he was still on the property trying to figure out what he was going to do next when a police officer came up and told him about the mandatory evacuation. He said ‘okay’ and drove downhill and took a sharp left through the avocado grove and turned off his headlights.

“When the police car left the driveway, he returned. He told us he’d known for 19 years living in that area that this day was coming, and he’s a plumber, so in the deck area of our house he had a huge fire hose connected to his agricultural water pump for just this purpose.

“He started hosing down our house and was joined by firemen who then arrived. He ended up refilling their tanks with the water hose. Those guys and Peter stopped the fire right at our driveway. Our house was inches from being completely consumed.

“All the fire trucks in that area were coming to him to get their tanks refilled.

“He was there all night long. At 6:30 a.m., he called and said, ‘Your house is safe.’

“And Peter was so cute, because he said, ‘I have all these new friends now. They’re not from here, and they all wear yellow.’

“So we decided that yellow is the new black. “

An earlier version of this story inaccurately sited the source of the water in the anecdote recounted by Patty Look. This has since been corrected.

Michael Ovieda, 1416 Sycamore Canyon Road

Michael Ovieda, 59, didn’t leave the Sycamore Canyon Road house he was born and raised in during the Sycamore or Coyote Fires, and he wasn’t about to leave for this one.

Ovieda, who lives with his son Willie at 1416 Sycamore Canyon Road – a home sporting a “Firefighters Rock!” sign just a stone’s throw from the closed-off Five-Points rotary – stuck around through Thursday night despite the flames threatening his property and notice of a mandatory evacuation.

The fire stayed away, at least for last night. “It turned to smoke and we went to bed at 3:30 in the morning,” Ovieda said.

Ovieda and his son, along with his brother and nephew who live in the house next door, macheted down the grass near their home and soaked it in water. “We’re going to stay here until it burns down,” 18-year-old Willie said. The guys had friends coming by to help remove their valuable items from the home. “We don’t even know where half our stuff is,” Willie said.

Katie Ingersoll, 533 Conejo Road

Katie Ingersoll had just returned home from a Bank of America appointment where, ironically enough, she had completed a refinance negotiation for her house at 533 Conejo Road. (The documents were to be signed Monday, though Ingersoll wonders if the arrangement holds now that the house is gone. Bank representatives had yet to return her calls regarding the question.) After finishing dinner with her son Grey, 12, Ingersoll got a call alerting her that a fire was very close. Just how close she could never have imagined. Checking outside, the sound of sirens ripped through the air and enormous flames were immediately visible beyond the adjacent hill. They ran inside to begin collecting essentials: laptops, memorabilia, the odd piece of art. Grey grabbed his electric guitar and trombone and a friend’s amplifier he’d borrowed.

Ingersoll was in the process of grabbing a box of legal documents – crucial papers relating to her recent divorce. “They were exceedingly well organized,” she lamented. In just that moment, a gush of hot air and embers blasted through her window, “I dropped [the box] and said, ‘We gotta get outta here.'” At the very last second, with the car loaded up, their cat escaped from the passenger side door and there was no time to chase her. Their escape was complicated by news from a stranger – a man in a Volvo she did not recognize – that the gate through Sycamore Canyon Road was locked. Ingersoll opted instead to drive up Conejo Road to Mission Ridge, ultimately connecting to Foothill Road, a much longer and more dangerous route.

Ingersoll and her son stayed with friends. Later that evening, her boyfriend talked his way back to the property to find the cat. What he found instead was the entire neighborhood burned to the ground, Ingersoll recalled, and no sign of the cat.

Ingersoll met with a Farmer’s Insurance representative outside the Red Cross shelter at San Marcos High School for nearly an hour. She described the whole experience as an almost Kali-like transformation, where you walk through fire and come out stronger. “You kind of fear death no longer because you’ve already died,” she said. “Grey missed school today but didn’t seem overly despondent because of it.” Ingersoll added, “For the fist time since I came to town in 1976, everything I have fits into my car.”

Barry and Jenelle Fore, 447 Conejo Lane

Barry and Jenelle Ford’s house, at 447 Conejo Lane, was close to Ingersoll’s and their story is every bit as dramatic. Standing on his deck around 5:40 p.m., Barry Ford noticed a glow on the mountain above them. Looking through his binoculars, he found it was actually a raging-out-of-control blaze. The wind was blowing away from them, in an eastward direction, so he wasn’t worried. Still, Ford, his wife, and son began getting ready to evacuate. After a few minutes, however, the wind shifted and there was “flame and ash everywhere,” he said. Loading his truck, he considered hitching his boat to his car and saving it. At the very moment he turned to look at the boat, a wall of flame rose up just 15 feet behind it. “Forget it,” he thought, “we’re outta here.” He and his wife and 10-year-old son drove their two cars away from the house.

Getting out was scarier and more challenging than it had to be, they said, because they were also informed that the Sycamore Canyon gate was closed. “We had to climb Hill [Road] behind our house to get out,” he said. “The traffic was bottlenecked.” Janelle Ford acknowledges that they do not know definitively that their house is gone, though all the neighboring houses are confirmed burned. “There’s always the slim possibility that we have the one house that didn’t get hit,” she said.

Seeing the silhouettes of his son and wife in the car behind him, with the fire in the background on their way to safety, was all he needed, Ford said. “If I hadn’t experienced such a close call, I never would be this happy.”

Don Fritzen, 327 Conejo Road

Don Fritzen and his wife were in Carpinteria when the Tea Fire broke out. Driving home around 6:15 p.m., they saw the flames consuming the mountainside by their house. Their first thought was of their dog, Mulligan, stuck at home.

With Sycamore Canyon gated, the Fritzens had to take a circuitous route home. It was a very tense drive; past Parma Park, which was completely engulfed in flames, embers and ash flying around, and confused motorists stopping in the middle of the road, hesitating, and changing directions. The couple had to talk their way past two checkpoints to get to their house, temperatures rising outside from 70 degrees to over 90 degrees as they approached their house, where flames got to between 200 and 300 yards from the home. “We had only 10 or 15 minutes to get our things,” Fritzen said. “You try to look and you have to assess what do you need to take and what you do not need to take. My wife and I are both golfers and we both took out golf clubs. I got my hole-in-one trophy.” He learned the house burned completely while speaking to an Allstate Insurance agent over the phone. The agent told him, “I have your neighbor sitting right here, and he says your whole hillside is gone.” Allstate Insurance representatives gave Fritzen and his wife a voucher for five days lodging at a hotel and meals. “[When] it runs out, we can save our receipts and they’ll reimburse us,” he said.

Jim Marino

“Last night we had to evacuate my parents out of Mission Canyon,” attorney Jim Marino, a former Santa Barbara police officer, reported Friday. “When I got home and was following news accounts of the fire I got a call from my son, Troy, who is a Santa Barbara County deputy sheriff.

“The irony was that when he called me he was evacuating the back side of the Riviera, Las Canoas Road and Gibraltar Road-Stanwood Drive areas, including St. Mary’s Seminary. That is the exact same area that [officer] Doug Winnifred and I had to evacuate in front of the onrushing Coyote Fire, 44 years ago. I remember it well because they had just completed the building at the end of the steep, winding entrance road. When we got to the site on top, the fire was roaring in Rattlesnake Canyon and creating such a powerful updraft we both had to fasten our chin straps on those old Toptex helmets we had to wear then (everyone hated them) in order to keep them from blowing off.”

“The construction trash was flying through the air in a surreal picture reminiscent of some eerie scene out of Poltergeist, drawn toward the fire by the vacuum, like the proverbial moth to the candle flame. Larger cardboard boxes that the roof tiles had come in were rolling and bumping along the ground toward the fire about 50 yards away and the heat was intense.”

“There was one caretaker there with a hose watering things down and we told him he should probably leave, but he declined to take our advice. On the way back down that steep, winding road the fire had come in behind us and we had to make a run through the flames in the black and white [patrol car] but we were going so fast it didn’t do any damage. We did put a few dings in the police car that night though, going up, down and trying to turn around in those narrow rock-lined driveways. Needless to say we knocked over more than a few mail boxes and signs. I just thought it was incredibly ironic that my oldest son was evacuating the very same area at night, running in front of the flames of the Tea Fire, that Doug Winnifred and I had to evacuate in front of the onrushing Coyote fire 44 years ago. Definitely a dej vu experience.”

Peter Kornbluth in His Own Words (from an email sent to Peter Lackner): 1900 block of Las Canoas Road

5:50 P.M. I was on the couch watching the news when a friend called to say there was a fire above Montecito. I drove over to Gibralter Rd., where there was a good view to the east. The fire was burning along a ridge about a quarter mile above Mountain Drive, 4 miles to our east, and heading south very rapidly. I could see emergency vehicles winding along the roads. Within a few minutes, the fire had jumped Mountain Drive. When a Santa Barbara County Sheriff arrived to close the road, I headed home, calling our nephew Justin and asking him to drive up to our property to help Laura, his 89-year-old grandmother, pack up and leave. She lives in a small house on our property, at the bottom of the hill, next to the avocado grove. Story was at a class in town. I couldn’t reach her.

6:30 P.M.

When I got home, I stopped at Laura’s house. Justin was already there, stuffing the cat into its travel cage and loading up Laura’s Jeep. Story called me and I headed up the hill to our house. On the way, I ran into Raven, the young woman who takes care of Story’s horses. Her boyfriend, Andy, had driven her up there, and she was saddling up to ride and lead the two horses down towards town. I did not envy her, on the road with 2 horses in 60 mile-per-hour winds while emergency vehicles raced uphill with sirens wailing. Andy, whose house on Mountain Drive is very close to the start of the fire, had been in town and could not get home.

7:10 P.M.

Story was already at our house, distributing the white K-Mart laundry baskets bought years before for just this event. Into these baskets went paintings and sculpture, photographs and papers, everything that could never be replaced. We had done this before during fire threats, so it was obvious what to load up. Musical instruments, computer hard drives, boxes of important papers, a suitcase full of clothes for each of us, pets and pet food. The cat could not be found – a problem for Story.

7:40 P.M.

Three of my employees, Mike, Thad, and Carlos, arrived to assist. They carried everything down to the driveway, starting by filling the old Suburban we keep just for this purpose. Then they loaded their trucks with furniture and all of my tools from the shed. At this point, the Mt. Calvary ridge to our east was still blocking any direct view of flames, but the ever-growing red glow in the sky was ominous.

8:10 P.M.

Story left for town while the guys pulled out all of the fire hoses, pumps and foaming equipment from the steel box where it had all been sitting for years. They unrolled hoses and attached them to hydrants around the house. They hooked up the hoses to a device which injects fire retardant into the water, and made a complete circuit of the house, covering all the doors, windows and exposed wood with a sticky, soapy foam. We could now see huge flames on the ridges to the east.

8:45 P.M.

Mike, Thad and Carlos left for town. I drove down to the 2 other houses on our property. Laura lives in a frame house built in 1977.

Fifteen years ago, we installed a fire sprinkler system on the outside of the house. It is built from PVC pipe strapped under the eaves and on the roof, fitted with about 20 big Rainbird rotating sprinklers, and controlled with a 2″ valve. It had not been tested for a few years. I opened up the valve and the system charged. Almost immediately, I heard a “pop”, and saw that a joint had come unglued up near the roof. Bummer. I had to shut it off. I went down to the other house, a beautiful, hundred-year-old redwood farmhouse where our good friends Walter and Patty live with their daughter Estelle. We had installed a hydrant at the deck years ago and left 100 feet of fire hose coiled up and ready. I hooked up the hose to the hydrant and unrolled the full 100 feet.

9:10 P.M.

I got back up to my house. I got some PVC glue in order to repair Laura’s sprinklers and tied an extension ladder on the roof of my truck. As I started down the road, a Sheriff’s cruiser drove up next to me. The officer told me there was a mandatory evacuation and I had to leave immediately. I agreed and drove down the driveway while he negotiated the 3-point turn in front of our house. Halfway down the hill, I turned into one of the dirt roads that serve our avocado grove and shut off my lights. A moment later, the sheriff drove down the driveway and out towards town.

9:30 P.M.

I set the ladder against Laura’s house and climbed up to re-glue the broken pipe. I would have to let it dry at least an hour, so I left the system off and headed back up the hill.

9:45 P.M.

To my horror, I saw Mt. Calvary Retreat House completely engulfed in flames. This beautiful and historic structure, 2 ridges to the east, was a mansion built by a Mid-western millionaire in the 1920’s and was later gifted to the Anglican Church. In recent years, it has served as a retreat house for seminars, religious conferences, yoga intensives, etc. It was shocking to see it in flames, 1/2 mile away. The fire had now moved 3 miles towards us. I sat in my truck, listening to the local radio, staring eastward, waiting for the glue to dry, wondering where the fire would hit our property first. There was, as yet, no sign of fire fighters, although Rattlesnake Canyon, between Mt. Calvary and St. Mary’s Seminary was certainly burning, as the orange glow from behind St. Mary’s got bigger and brighter.

10:50 P.M.

I now had the answer. I could see flames coming around the slope directly below and to the south of St. Mary’s. This meant the 2 other structures would be threatened first. I drove down the hill.

11:00 P.M.

I turned on the system at laura’s house and the PVC repair held! The house was quickly drenched in water, pouring off the roof and under the eaves. I ran down to Walter and Patty’s house. The fire was a few hundred feet away, racing down the hill through brush and dried grass as it headed towards the eucalyptus trees that line the creek at the east side of our property. These trees are less than 100 feet from the house and they were already catching fire and showering the house with embers. A big live oak sits in front of the house, covering most of the roof with its branches. Close behind the house sits a redwood tree which covers the rest of the roof. I opened the hydrant and began to pour hundreds of gallons of water into these trees and onto the roof to keep the embers from igniting the trees and the house. It worked.

11:25 P.M.

Fire trucks began to arrive and attack the fire in the eucalyptus trees. Meanwhile, spot fires had appeared all over the avocado grove behind the houses. Dead leaves, the mulch below the trees, was burning, although the avocados themselves were not. I went up to Laura’s house. It might drown, but it would not burn.

12:00 A.M.

The wind began to abate. Immediately, the firemen went on the offensive, now better able to manage the spread of the fire. More trucks arrived, perhaps 4 in all, with 15 – 20 crewmen. If the wind stayed calm, our driveway was the south-western boundary of the Tea Fire. The row of Eucalyptus, which stretches next to our driveway for perhaps 1000 feet northward, was being ignited by burning debris at ground level, moving slowly towards our house. The firemen stretched the hose from Walter and Patty’s house down to the road to refill the tanks in their engines. More engines and crews arrived. The strategy appeared to be to put an engine the driveway of every house in the neighborhood.

1:15 A.M.

I could see that something was burning up at the property of our neighbors, Greg and Judith. They live to the west of our avocado grove, atop the next small ridge. Airborne embers must have leap-frogged the grove, the horse pasture to its west, and the row of eucalyptus at the property line. I drove up there and found an engine from the City of Arcadia Fire Department. The house was unhurt, although they had lost a small out-building. Firemen were hosing down spot fires in the olive trees.

2:00 A.M.

An SUV with 2 commanders arrived, heading up the road to our house. They were from the Simi Valley Fire Dept., and they were scouting for a spot to station 1 or 2 engines in case the fire moved around the north side of St. Mary’s, across the canyon, straight towards our house. They liked the spot, and radio’d for an engine, which arrived in a few minutes with a crew of 4. One commander instructed these guys to get out chain saws and start clearing brush further down the steep hill in front of our house. They asked if they could take out an olive tree and a small oak right next to the driveway. No problem. We were proud of the “defensible space” we had cleared around our house over the years. For these firemen, however, it was not enough. The slope is steep and thick with chaparral that hasn’t burned since 1964. It is what they call a “chimney”, and the eucalyptus trees at the bottom, 1000 feet or so away, were crowning with flame. I made coffee.

3:30 A.M.

All of a sudden, the northwest corner of the fire came over the closest ridge to our east. The chaparral was sending flames up 50 feet or more. The fire was now coming straight at our house from 2 directions. Stan, the commander from Simi, asked me to turn my truck around and point it down the road. He said it might get “very exciting”. I made more coffee.

4:00 A.M.

The wind was now almost completely still. The fire had stopped moving. It was about 400 yards to our east and 250 yards to our south. The fire crew sat waiting. By now, helicopters with night vision capability were dropping water and retardant on the edges of the fire.

6:30 A.M.

I started calling neighbors to give them reports on their houses. I drove back to Gibralter Rd. and saw incredible devastation. Many houses gone, the chaparral completely gone from the steep mountain sides, Mt. Calvary just a smoking ruin with its chimney still upright.

When I got home, the fireman were sleeping in their rigs.

11:00 A.M.

Several engines and crew trucks arrived down in the eucalyptus forest. These were the “hand crews”, brought in to manually finish off the fire with picks and shovels. They were amazing. They cut a trail along the northern boundary of the fire below our house and hauled hundreds of feet of yellow hose up the steep hill from the engines. They call their work “flood and grub”. The smoldering debris is slowly turned over and flooded and broken up until they are sure it is cold. Very labor-intensive, particularly on a steep hill in hot weather. Their average age looked to be about 21. These guys made me think about Ronald Reagan, who once said: “The scariest 9 words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’ “…….

12:00 P.M.

The Simi Valley Fire Dept. engine company departed, confident that the hand crews, the helicopters, and the huge DC-10 that was now dropping 12,000 gallons of retardant with each pass, would put this fire to bed.

1:00 P.M.

I put myself to bed until dark.

Bunny Bernhardt: 738 Coyote Road

“It was 10 minutes to six on Thursday, and I had just sat down to a wonderful dinner which I had just prepared, when my next door neighbor up above me, Ky Hoffman, called me and said, ‘Get out!’ That’s all, just ‘Get out.’ By this time you were beginning to hear sirens and stuff so it just made sense. I grabbed my purse and ran out to the car, and I looked up, and I have to tell you, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life. Orange flames, everywhere, heading right down toward us.

“There is nothing left of the big house but cinder blocks, and the little wood house where I was living burned completely.

“As far as I’m concerned, the great tragedy is that my husband, John Bernhardt, who passed away in 1963, a great painter and assemblage artist–lost everything, except some pieces that are presently at Sullivan Goss Gallery. They were using one woodcut and one painting, ‘Guanajuato,’ of the two mummies, in the current show. Frank [Goss] had all of John’s woodcuts framed, including one that is three feet tall; so those were saved.

“An irony is that Mike Andrews–the big Box Tales man, a sweetheart–had just moved last week into the big house, and he had said, ‘Bunny, we don’t like the paintings in the living room.’ That included John’s masterpiece, ‘Heaven, Hell, and Earth.'” We had a big fight. I said, ‘That is what the house stands for, that’s what it’s there for.’ Maybe if I’d let Mike put them into storage they would have survived.

“I’m staying at the Daily place on Middle Road. The mother, Natalie Daily, died exactly two years ago. The oldest daughter, Marla, called me and said that her mother had saved everything I’d ever published (much of it in the Independent), mostly stories about Mountain Drive in the old days. Her son thinks that all of the work is in some drawer there because they haven’t moved a thing since Natalie died.

“The first fire, in ’64, the Coyote Fire, lasted for three days and three nights. We had these great people living next door to us, the Dobynses. Frank Dobyns, God love him, was just a born leader. He talked one fire engine into staying for three days, and that’s why our house and others were saved that time.

“The last fire was in ’76. The big house survived. The little wood house did go down, but we rebuilt. Everybody-the whole neighborhood-came with hammers and saws.

“Yesterday I went to a party at Oakleigh, a great big compound on Cold Springs Road owned by the Sheltons. Everybody had lost their house, and they were all just hugging and kissing and laughing, and that’s a miracle.

Sally Anderson

I am a Santa Barbara local from Mission Canyon. I wrote this poem about the fires over the weekend.

Wind Dial

Somewhere, in the thickness of sleep

I hear seagulls, calling back to the ocean

When I awake the sun is rising

out of ash, glowing muted

in the density of morning

Still cool from sleep, the sky

is ready to burn, blowing softly

through the window, bringing

the fragrant smell of wood

And houses

turned to dust, returned

to the ground, what remains

a chimney, brick

a steering wheel, steel

and a statue of four bodies

a circle of stone

An aloe plant still in the pot

standing at the driveway

columns leading to an empty lot

the ash on the ground

a layer lighter than snow

And an iron wind dial

still turning on the roof

of my house, spared

People start returning

home today if they can

eyes like the reservoirs, dry

Nancy Ellen Kapp – 461 Ranchita Vista Rd

the day began in confusion

their was an edge in the air

people colliding everywhere

I looked up to the mountains

as fire caught my eyes glare

it grew huge in a moments time

people calling on the telephone line

flying home to gather what little we could

the closeness was what made the reality

fire was all we could see

downtown went black

lights off and ashes

flew in all directions

flowing in mid-air

wondering where

loved ones, friends and the animals

were in the chaotic full-moon’s frenzy

the aftermath of sorrow and unexplained emotion

in the city commotion

ours was burning out of control

a devastation beyond what we know

the road-

was no longer a familiar

and friendly ride home

flowers and trees gone

tragedies unify communities

and as we hang

by a common thread

let us not seek revenge

but forgiveness instead

Don Thomas, Chelham Way

My Unsung Heroes of the Tea Fire

I have lived on Chelham Way for 20 years and absolutely love it here. I have a great family and terrific neighbors. My story is about my neighbors and the recent Tea Fire.

My one neighbor is a family whom the dad is a retired fire fighter, his wife is a fire captain up at Station 15. Last Thursday night once we realized the fire was raging not to far away I met them out of the street and watched the fire. It didn’t take to long to realize that this was going to be a close one and you best start packing up. I can’t imagine how my neighbor felt, being a fire captain, knowing that any minute she would have to leave and go and fight this fire leaving her two sons and husband to deal with this. But she did, I know for myself I probably couldn’t do that.

I also packed up my wife and two kids and got them on their way, out of here. Once that was done it was easier to think about the approaching fire. The fire was getting closer and the smoke and wind and embers were flying everywhere. I stayed behind getting water hoses ready and my chainsaw as well. If needed I was going to start cutting down trees to prevent any fires from spreading, try to save my house and any others that I could. I also started watering down the house and lawns and landscaping. My neighbor now was alone, his two sons were on their way to safety and his wife was on her way to work, putting out this fire and trying to save as many families and their homes and memories as possible. She is a captain up at Station 15. She soon got dispatched to the fire area along with other engines and crews from that station. When she left Chelham Way she felt pretty comfortable regarding her house. But soon after getting to the fire lines she was listening to the radio traffic and soon realized that she may not ever see her home again. Houses and neighborhood’s were being burned up all around Chelham Way.

In the mean while I was here on Chelham Way with her husband, we both helped out the girls next door. Our one neighbor is 100 years old and has her grand daughter living with her, helping her out. They also had an out of town visitor. We helped them pack up and get their pets into two separate cars and on their way. My neighbor then went on to help other neighbors get out. I returned to my home and continued watering stuff down. We met a short time later and were watching the fire, we both noticed the ever closing flames from the Westmont direction; the new flames up by the Westmont facility housing area and then another set of flames over by Coyote. He immediately said we were being flanked. He then said it is time to go. It wasn’t so much what he said, that was fire talk but the way he said it. I listened to him and left, not knowing if I would ever see my home again.

Engine 315 was one of the engines of Station 15. Its crew was: Captain Corey Stowe, Engineer Dustin McKibben and Firefighter Jim Bass. When they responded to the fire lines they soon realized how bad this was and also remembered that their fellow fire fighter and Captain had her home on Chelham Way. They drove down to Chelham to find the fire right at the back door of several houses. They quickly responded and started suppressing the fire. I also heard they put down some foam where the fire was the closest to the houses. They moved up and down Chelham Way suppressing fires here and there. The fire with its 70 mph winds was spotting new fires a long way out in front and everywhere. My retired fire fighter neighbor has said he still doesn’t know how they saved Chelham Way, it was a miracle.

These three men saved Chelham Way.

I for one, will always be in their debt forever and remember them for what they did for both me and my family and also all my neighbors. All I can say is my neighbor must be one heck of a fire captain whom is very much respected and liked by her fellow fire fighters. I know that she is one heck of a great neighbor and a mother. Both her and her husband are the salt of the earth, you couldn’t find a better and nicer family. Her husband either stayed behind or returned, that part I’m still unclear about. He called me several times in the following days, he kept an eye on our home while we were evacuated. He watched over the neighborhood, he even came over and got out our generator and kept the ice box running. He kept himself busy not only with his home and mine but several other homes in the area.

I was out front of my house when my neighbor the Fire Captain returned from the Tea Fire this past Tuesday, Engine 315 was deployed down to the LA fires. She looked beat, I walked up to her and gave her a hug and thanked her.

Thank god for people like this.

Tempered by Fire

By Peter LeVay

Our house and all our possessions were burned to a crisp in the Santa Barbara Tea Fire. My fiancee, Mary, and I heard fire engines which I had told her were emanating from the television that I had just turned on.

Shortly after, my best friend called and said there was a fire in our area and I should go outside and check it out. We went outside and could clearly see what was already a raging forest fire two ridges away. The Santa Ana winds were blowing the fire down those canyons at a constant 35 miles per hour with gusts up to 50. I said “there is no way the fire will be able to advance into this wind” (I’m an engineer) and decided to do a leisurely evacuation. I was in denial.

At the sight of white hot flames 50 feet tall blending into an iridescent orange and grey plume of smoke shooting hundreds of feet into the night sky, Mary wisely decided the time to evacuate was now or sooner. We quickly loaded a few clothes, the backup to the computer, some documents, and her valued jewelry into her car. She drove to her mother’s house where, if needed, I would meet her later.

I was still in denial. I remained behind and at a strangely slow pace, almost as if drugged, prepared for what I was sure was not to happen, the complete destruction of our home. I moved my 1950 and 2001 Chevy, my motorcycle, and Rino (a recreational, two seated, off road vehicle) out of the garage and into the driveway away from any structures which might burn. Giving them what I thought was their best chance of survival. All the while glancing back at the fire which had crossed another ridge and was unbelievably advancing toward our home. I was still in denial.

I went back into the house and looked around. If the house was actually going to burn I would grab the picture off the wall of my two sons, and some clothes. I went to the car, put on my bicycle rack and loaded onto it my favorite bicycle. Why I didn’t load some other bicycles I don’t know, maybe denial still. I went to look at the fire again to see it one canyon away, about 600 yards, crossing the last ridge necessary to reach our home. The radiant heat from those white flames was hot on my skin.

The noise had the distant rumble of a far away train added to the high frequencies of glass shattering and wood splintering, dotted with the occasional explosion of a propane tank. It was clearly time to run for my life. It is one of the most bizarre physiological switches of my life. Denial, denial, denial; run for your life.

I drove with what was left of my worldly possessions about a quarter of a mile down the road along with the last of the evacuees, stopping at the last vantage point for seeing our house.

A lone, brave policeman, in his car with light flashing, was going down the road, house to house, ensuring that everyone had evacuated. I could clearly see on a hillside to our north what the fire had become. It was a very clear view of about 100 acres of burning mountainside only slightly distorted by a curtains of heat waves. Through this curtain was a surreal alien Martian landscape. The mountain floor was brightly lit, as if by overhead spot lights, by bright white three-foot mounds of coal, the remains of mountain chaparral spaced about 30 feet apart, burning with the same white intensity of the sun. The scorched black, ashen grey, and brown earth and been vacuumed of all debris by four or five dancing tornadoes of flame dissolving into the smoke 100 yards above. After absorbing this magnificent view of nature, like lemmings, all the evacuees decided at the same time to hop into our cars and move along.

I met Mary at her mom’s house as the fire burned through the next morning. For the first few days afterward we were in a daze. Did our house really burn? I thought for certain it had, but with no concrete evidence, hope springs eternal. The next morning I went to a vantage point to see our house, but through the smoky haze it could not be seen. I could, however, see the silhouettes of the tall trees which surrounded our house. If they had survived perhaps, miracle of miracles, the house did too. We were on an emotional see-saw which wracked our stomachs more than any rollercoaster. It wasn’t until the next morning, when the wind had shifted, that I could get a clear view. The silhouettes of trees were their standing charred remains. Where the house stood was the water heater and the blistered remains of the vehicles which I had moved to the front driveway, all of which should have been blocked from view by the house. The emotional rollercoaster was over and filled with a strangely calm depression of disbelief.

Tem ‘per, –v. 2. To bring to the right condition by treating in some way (steel is tempered by heating and sudden cooling to make it hard and tough).

Throughout this ordeal we were flooded by calls from friends and family expressing their concern and sharing in our disbelief. They all said how their hearts were with us and that they were available to give us whatever they had that we might need. It was a tidal wave of emotional support unlike anything I have felt. You would think such an outpouring of love would leave you elated and emotionally high. It did, but with each call there was a sharing of the events of the fire and the grief and re-realization of the total destruction of everything we owned. It was a crystalline example of the ying and yang of life all in one moment. The elation of love and depression of loss.

This strange ying and yang perception continued with the review of all the things that were lost. Things you took for granted became much more appreciated and things you once thought were important you realize are not. Toiletries, clean underwear, and socks became very important a few days after the fire, and now have again been reduced to the level of the unimportant commonplace. A cup that my son had given Mary from a trip to New Zealand miraculously survived the fire. It had been forgotten but was now placed on a pedestal of importance. Upon trying to clean the cup, it crumbled, losing its elevated importance as a survivor, but reliving in our hearts it’s importance as a gift of love from my son. Up and down and up and down go our emotions and perceptions; which have been tempered by the fire. Old family photos and memorabilia which would trigger memories of the past have been lost, but the memories are burned in our hearts forever.

Although we have lost all our possessions, our lives are fuller than they ever have been. Your home is where your heart is. Never has it been more true. As long as Mary and I have each other, and the incredible love of our family and friends, we are home; and nothing can ever take that away from us. We are truly blessed.


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