Friday, November 14, 2008
We are experiencing the third major fire in Santa Barbara county in a period of 15 months. As I write, about 3500 acres have burned and over 100 homes, mostly very large luxury homes, have been destroyed, a monastery has been completely destroyed, Westmont College has lost numerous buildings, and evacuation warnings extend well into the city of Santa Barbara, to within blocks of the downtown business area.
Yesterday, I stopped at Costco on my way home... about 5:30. I came out of Costco at 6:15, began the drive home and as I got to the entrance of 101, I looked to the south and saw the flames in the foothills about 5 miles from where I was. The scene I saw was very similar to the photo above taken by Pilot Productions which also has a number of other photos of the fire. I turned on the radio and heard about the Tea Fire which began at 5:50. The conditions were perfect for a disaster. The humidity was very low, under 20%. The winds were strong with gusts over 70mph in the hills. The topography in that area is very rugged with amazing multi-million dollar homes interspersed between canyons and hills which are covered with chaparral. Many of the homes have the native vegetation growing very close to the structures. We are experiencing record heat because of a high pressure system over the desert pushing daytime temperatures inland up into the upper 80's. And we are still in a drought situation. The fire took off. The information officer of the fire department referred to the incident as a "fire tornado," a situation with swirling high winds pushing flames in multiple directions at once.
At this point, about 13 people have been injured including some with burns but there have been no deaths reported. Evacuations have proceeded smoothly. The number of homes destroyed - over 100 - is rough because the authorities have not even been able to assess that yet because of the seriousness of the fire itself. They aren't even talking about containment yet, they are only trying to position themselves to minimize damage as the winds kick up again towards evening.
The fire teaches a number of lessons. First is how fragile our lives are. Even these fabulous homes that cost 8 figures, have gates and security guards are still only temporary. The owners may keep out the poor and the curious, but they still are not safe. Some of the families who lost their homes reported having only 15 or so minutes to gather what they could and flee. I think that even Oprah's $50 million home is in a mandatory evacuation zone and is perhaps seriously threatened.
Second, is that nature does what nature does. The chaparral eco system requires fire to be healthy. It has evolved to depend upon a fire every few years. Human beings, on the other hand, don't do well with fires like this and have worked very hard to contain and even eradicate them. As a result, some of the areas have long periods when they have not burned and have built up incredible amounts of fuel for the fire when it does come. The Gap Fire from earlier this year burned in areas that had not burned for over 50 years. It was an incredibly large fire that burned just under 9,500 acres. While it did threaten the community of Goleta, most of the fire burned in remote, mountainous areas and the winds cooperated. Avocado orchards to the north of Goleta acted as a fire break and saved 100's of homes. The lesson is that if homes are built into this beautiful eco system, the owners had better plan on the likelihood of a fire at some point and the longer the period between fires, the bigger the fire will be.
And we learn again what is truly important, that stuff is just that. Relationships are what counts. That community is bigger than even our small intimate connections... this fire fighting requires help from all over southern California and without that help, the extravagant homes of Montecito would all be gone.
Cheryl and I have talked about what papers we need where, whether the area where we live now could actually be threatened by a fire, how fragile we are...
In the meantime, send your good thoughts and prayers this way, that the 100's of fire fighters will be safe, that as little property as is possible is destroyed, that we again learn the important lessons from this event.