Friday, November 14, 2008

Fire In Paradise

I awoke this morning to news that Montecito is on fire. (The link is in the title.) If Montecito is on fire and the Santa Annas are blowing, it will quickly engulf the canyons and move with lightening speed up the coast into Santa Barbara.

First Love/Last Love (Tom) and I were living in his house at the top of West Camino Cielo in 1990 when the Painted Cave Fire struck. I had been working all day at Robinson's in La Cumbra Mall on upper State Street, a few blocks from San Marcos Pass Road, (highway 154), but had a tennis lesson after work at the tennis courts by Hendreys beach. While on the court, I noticed smoke off in the distance toward the foothills. I immediately cancelled the rest of my lesson and raced for my car. When I got to the base of San Marcos Pass Road, the Highway Patrol had blockaded the highway and would not let me pass. All they would say was there was a fire at Painted Cave on East Camino Cielo (we lived on West Camino Cielo). I told one of the patrolmen I needed to get home to rescue the cat. I didn't mention Tom--I figured he'd rescue himself--but I was worried. The Highway Patrolman told me I could drive up the coast and try the back way in. Which meant taking 101 to Gaviota, then Las Cruces toward the cutback to highway 246 to Santa Ynez, which intersected with highway 154 and was the back way to San Marcos Pass. Another blockade and another Patrolman who refused to let me pass even though I could prove I lived there. He told me the residents living on the roads off the Pass had been evacuated. I turned around and retraced my route back to Santa Barbara. By the time I got back, the fire had come roaring down the canyons and crossed the eight lanes of the coast highway and was burning parts of Hope Ranch which is where Tom's ex-wife and children lived.

The fire moved fast in the Santa Anna Winds, roaring down the canyon, but no one ever thought a fire would cross eight lanes of freeway. I was there just after the fire crossed the freeway heading into town and all of us came to a screeching skidding halt. Cars started backing up and trying to turn. It was chaos. I finally managed to turn and drive back into Golita to find a Motel for the night. I got the last room available. I was there a week. Tom was in Los Olivos. It took us two days to locate each other(this was the world before everyone had a cell phone). He came and stayed with me until we could go back up the canyon to see the damage. Dave the cat was fine.

His ex-wife's house didn't burn, and neither did his house up the mountain. But the trip from home to work and back was a grim, moonscape of ash. There was not a tree, or bush or bit of grass that had survived the fire as it raged down the canyon. It was an arson lit fire. It was the beginning of the end for us as a couple. But that had nothing to do with the fire. Merely the scorched earth that was our relationship.


jmsjoin said...

Thankfully you guys did okay! I have a friend that has a gorgeous place in the hills of Santa Barbara. She is 86 now and I worry about her often. I looked at her site and saw nothing but after listening to Rob Lowe talking about how bad this was in his area and now you I am going to call her. Take care!

Anonymous said...

What an experience! And you've used your storytelling skills so that I was on the edge of my seat.

susan said...

"For generations, market-driven urbanization has transgressed environmental common sense. Historic wildfire corridors have been turned into view-lot suburbs, wetland liquefaction zones into marinas, and floodplains into industrial districts and housing tracts. Monolithic public works have been substituted for regional planning and a responsible land ethic. As a result, Southern California has reaped flood, fire, and earthquake tragedies that were as avoidable, as unnatural, as the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing explosion in the streets."

I haven't spent much time in southern California myself but my favorite historian and urban theorist has been Mike Davis who was raised there. His book 'City of Quartz' ,an amazing read, was followed by 'Ecology of Fear' that I liked just as much. It reveals how this very real place and its problems are founded upon a number of very poor decisions and demonstrates how much of Los Angeles' disasters are simply a function of decisions that are poorly-made in light of the natural environment.

I'm glad you made it through that particular disaster and truly sorry about the scorched earth you faced afterward.

Utah Savage said...

Thanks guys.

Susan, that sounds like interesting reading. I'll put Mike Davis on my must read list.

We survived (at least the dwelling did) because Tom made brush-clearing a full time job. But we lived right on the edge of the Los Padres National forest. Tile room, no over hanging trees, stucco. And a huge water storage tank close enough to the road that the Fire Chief up there loved him. Tom offered them free use of his water for fighting other's fires. So of course they looked over our place.

We lived on acres of the loveliest land I've ever seen. On one side views of the Santa Barbara coastline from Golita to the Reviera and out to sea and the Channel Islands. And on the other side, the Santa Inez Valley. To the west of us was all national forest land. No visible neighbors, and on certain nights with the wind flowing up the mountain we could hear the sea.

Liquid said...

What a tragedy!

But, nonetheless, got another one of those "happies" over at my place if you'd like to come over, have a glass of wine and grab it!


KELSO'S NUTS said...

I used to live in Southern California and I even spent a period of time betting Bay Meadows/Golden Gate/State Fairs and Santa Anita/Hollywood/Del Mar races from the Earl Warren Fairgrounds.

I know Montecito and Santa Barbara very well.

My friends and I used to have an expression: "Take it to the bank. The Bank Of A. Levy."

I'm going to guess the Bank Of A. Levy failed sometime in the 20 years since then.

I agree with Susan. CITY OF QUARTZ is a remarkable book and Davis's chapter on Kaiser Aluminum and Kaiser-Permanente will give you a sense of how bad the US health care situation was in 1992 and predicted how bad it would get.

Vigilante said...

Thanks for the story, Utah!

Utah Savage said...

Glad to see you Vig, it probably means your OKay.

Stella by Starlight said...

Yes, Kelso, Bank Of A. Levy folded in '95 and was bought out by First Interstate, which was bought out by...

As you know, Utah, those Santa Anas can be pretty brutal. Hopefully, we'll get some much needed rain this winter. I could literally "see" your drive on the 101 to the 154 (I love that road) to the 246. I can't imagine how terrified you were.

Susan, that's an extremely interesting quote. L.A. has grown so much over the years, I barely recognize my native city.

Glad you're OK, Vig.

D.K. Raed said...

I can really relate, UT. After 25-yrs of southern calif wildfires, we finally moved. The last straw for us was the big Cuyamaca Fire (purposefully set one evening by a lost hunter to attract attention). Overnight, it traveled 35-miles out of the canyons & jumped I-5. Killed a teenage girl a mile away from us, trapped in her car as her family were all scrambling down their long driveway. A herd of 50 little deer laid down in an arroyo to die, all huddled together with their legs tucked under them, trying to get low as the fire roared overhead, turning their bodies to deer-shaped piles of ash like the people of Pompeii.

We were way out in the boonies, chapparel country, always packed up & ready to evac as soon as the Santa Anas started blowing. Too many sleepless nights watching the fires burning on the ridges & burning our throats & black ash falling on everything.

Here's a strange thing: Most of our wildfires down there stop at the border with Mexico. How does a fire know a border? Easy! Their wildlands there are control burned in a checkerboard pattern which does not allow a wildfire to rage out of control. You can see the pattern from the air.

Utah Savage said...

DK that's a great comment. You write so movingly about that experience that I have tears in my eyes and it isn't the smoke. You should write this comment as a post. It's really ghastly and beautiful.

D.K. Raed said...

Oh UT, I am just not in much of a blogging mood lately. I didn't mean to make you sob up. I always feel sorriest for the animals.

Right now I'm watching the fire news on TV with much fear. It's pretty late in the season, where are the damn rains?

And why can't we learn from Mexico & try the checkerboard wildland pattern ourselves?

Unknown said...

well, you know how this story affects me...I can say no more.