Santa Barbara’s Tea Fire: A Personal Account

Catherine from Graton forwards this message from a friend recounting how he and his wife fled from, survived and found a miracle in last week’s Tea Fire.Blessings of the BodhisattvasFinding meaning in the Santa Barbara wildfires

By Gary Hill

It was about 5pm on Thursday, just getting dark, and Helena reminded me that the full moon rise the previous night had been spectacular. Tonight we should make sure to see it from our front balcony looking out over the ocean and the chain of mountains running North east along the coast of Santa Barbara.

A siren sounds up in the hills but close by. Helena says it feels like fire. Warm sun-downer winds gusting hard against the patio doors pop one open with a bang. Startled, our dog Loki barks. Helena goes to see the moon rise and calls urgently. We look out at a bright orange plume of fire, 20 feet high, up on the ridgeline two miles to the northeast. The wind is blowing down the canyon, the flames flick and jump into the air.

Helena springs into action. “We need to evacuate, now! Where is the list of what we need to take?” I try to calm and assure her. The fire is moving away from us. There has been no order to evacuate, but to pacify her, I stoically start into action. Pack the computers, the photos and the camera. Calls start to fly in. Helena’s friend network is in full cry. I am annoyed and tell her, “If you are going to pack, pack. Take the portrait of your mother. Put it in the camper.” I check to see if the camper starts. Helena is grabbing the silver, the contents of the safe, her grandmother’s plates. Loki is anxious. Helena is frantic. I put my work in the brief case but don’t close it. I expect to do more work after things calm down.

Helena’s energy propels us forward. The camper is packed haphazardly with random keepsakes. I grab a duffel and toss in the most precious of our Buddhist art and a Tibetan rug. At the last minute, I stop in front of the jade quan yin just purchased to honor the birth of our first grandchild. Should I take her to keep her safe or leave her to protect the house? I am leaving lots of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and quan yin’s behind, sitting on altars and standing guard in doorways, patios and gardens. I grab the jade. There is really no reason to leave. The fire is to the east of us but now is a long line stretching like an arrow toward the south. Its light dwarfs the brilliant moon above it. I feel no sense of hurry and no sense that what we are leaving behind will be lost. I throw my bike in the station wagon and Helena and I set off in tandem for our friends the Pollocks; we hosted them for three days when they evacuated from fire in July.

At the first main street, we hit a gridlock of people coming down. I curse my poor route choice as I sit in the camper for an hour listening to talk radio. Some girl calls in saying she is at Westmont College and there are buildings on fire. That is a mile and a ridge away. We arrive at the Pollocks at about 6:30pm. The TV is on. The fire is on the other side of the canyon and I want to go back, get the Porsche out and grab a change of underwear. Helena becomes hysterical. “You are not going back!” I tell her if no one will drive me, I will ride my bike back.

Finally she says, “If you are going, I am going with you. We set out for the 15 minute drive back to the house. Helena is seething. Barely able to speak. “This is insane. We are going to run out of gas. We are going to be caught in traffic.” I keep telling her, “We are not in any danger here, there is no fire in sight. Breathe.” We wind up Mission Ridge. The streets are deserted. No fire in sight. As we crest the top of Mission Ridge, Helena says, “I guess I am going to have to say I am sorry.”

We pull around the corner to Conjeo Road, a quarter mile from our house down in the canyon. We are met by fire trucks. The house just ahead is fully in flames. Helena screams, “Turn around!” Conjeo is right in front of us. It is dark, but dropping down into the canyon toward the fire when it has already jumped to the top behind us is insane. We turn around. I am certain our house is lost and angry with myself at not having gone back earlier and taken out more stuff.

Back at the Pollocks, the TV shows video of the fire now spreading over hundreds of acres with one of its brightest spots the ridge line just above our house. We see helicopter video of a large house totally engulfed in flames, only its dark skeleton showing through the glowing red. It looks like ours, but I can’t be sure.

A sleepless night. Remembering all the things I didn’t take. What I could have done with an hour and a mind-set of “take it or lose it to the fire.” Then switching to the future tense: What to do. I do not even have a change of underwear. Helena rubs my back. Tells me everything that is important is right here. Loki snarffles at the foot of the bed and I try to be present with my breath. Wait for first light.

There are morning calls from the kids. They have been up all night following the fire on the Internet. A hundred-plus homes have been lost and Conjeo Road was the center of the destruction. Our house is certainly gone. Daughter Ashley gamely says we can all have Thanksgiving at her apartment.

Then a call from our friend Norm who lives a mile from our house on the “safe” side of the ridge. Despite the evacuation orders, he has stayed and has been up all night protecting his house. It is 6am and he is now over at ours with his nephew. The good news is that it is unscathed but surrounded by smoldering fire on all four sides. They are wetting down the embers with garden hoses. Norm tells me a back way around the barricades. The house is dead center in the middle of the mandatory evacuation zone and the CHP is stopping all traffic.

Helena and I drive off to the house with a bike in the back in case the car is stopped. Helena is doing her best to control hysteria. “This is crazy.” We are idiots for driving back into the fire zone. We are not allowed here. She almost loses it as we pass a series of fire trucks fighting a structure fire on a windy back road—I tell her to breathe. No one tells us to stop. We are around the barricades and into the burn zone. There are no open flames. Only smoldering heaps of rubble which were houses. Burned to total ash, only the chimney remaining. The houses across the street are gone. The houses on the hill above us are gone. The fire has burned to our property line on all four sides and stopped. White ash like a surveyor’s chalk line traces the boundaries. The gardens, the chickens, the fruit trees—all unscathed. Sitting like a green jewel in the center of grey and black devastation, it looks like a magic carpet has been put over our house to protect it. I spend the day with Norm hosing down hot spots. Helena packs the antiques and paintings and some underwear and goes back to the Pollocks. I promise not to spend the night.

At dusk, five fire trucks arrive, crews from over 100 miles away. They are shutting off the gas at burned out houses and will be stationed there for the night. I keep my promise to Helena and leave. I talk with the captain to make sure he is aware of the hot spots in the neighbor’s yard near our house. He shakes his head. “Pretty lucky to have a two-story house make it through this,” he says.“Yeah,” I say, but I had a lot of help. He no doubt is thinking of manpower.

I am thinking of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

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