[Noozhawk’s note: On the evening of Nov. 13, 2008, the Tea Fire began its rampage through the Montecito foothills and into Santa Barbara. More than 230 homes were destroyed by the 2,000-acre blaze, leaving hundreds of residents homeless and facing the daunting task of rebuilding — or moving on. Santa Barbara residents Karen and Doug Crawford lost their Las Alturas Road home in the fire, and on Thursday celebrated a new beginning after receiving their building permit from the city. Still, one year later, memories of the devastation hit close to home for the couple.]
We started receiving phone calls from friends at work and church late in the afternoon on Nov. 13, 2008. They warned us of the danger of what news reports were calling the Las Alturas fire. Turning on the television and hearing reports that the fire was actually in the mountains above Westmont College and heading west, we decided to get prepared in case the wind direction changed.
As I headed out the door to back the cars out of the garage and to close all of the doors and windows — as we had been instructed to do in a May 2008 fire drill — my wife, Karen, gathered important papers and asked me to get a few of our older photo albums. We gathered a few other items on the front porch, and went back to preparing dinner and watching the news reports on television.
Suddenly, we heard the roar of high winds and loud popping noises. We went out the front door to see what was causing this previously unheard and unrecognized commotion. Within minutes, we were knocking on neighbors’ doors to make sure they were aware of the danger and that they were able to evacuate. Then we jumped into our cars and started down the narrow winding road. We quickly reached a dead stop — there was gridlock high up on the Riviera, as people stopped their cars to load personal items and gawkers from other neighborhoods came up the hill to seek a thrill.
We weaved our way through traffic and down the hill, across Alameda Padre Serra and down toward town. We feared at the time that all of Santa Barbara was going to be ablaze before the night ended.
We remember the high winds that caused the Tea Fire, seeing the resulting fire balls screaming 100 feet overhead in 60 mph winds, and recalling what it was like as Karen and I realized, along with hundreds of our neighbors, that this was the most dangerous fire imaginable and that we were directly in its course of destruction.
Thankfully, the winds shifted back to the north and died down, and firefighters were allowed time and space to work their miracles and to do their heroic job of saving properties and fighting the fire.
In the past year, we have worked our way through the several mazes involved with getting resettled and obtaining necessary personal articles of clothing from friends and kind strangers, completing insurance claims, talking with disaster relief officials, meeting at the charred home site with city building officials and insurance appraisers, deciding whether to rebuild or move on, determining whether the insurance money would be sufficient to build a house in Santa Barbara, and getting over the fear and agony of having lost all physical evidence of our family’s life well lived.
This Thursday, we received our building permit from the city. Within a few minutes, we stood above the cleaned foundation and lot with our architect, Thomas Smith, and general contractor, Brian Lynch of Lynch Construction. We placed a shovel between us, stood in front of their business signs, looked down the canyon over downtown Santa Barbara, the harbor and the Channel Islands — and smiled and listened to the “click, click, click” of the camera that was memorializing our new beginnings and great hope for tomorrow.
We could not have come this far, this fast without a truly supportive and professional insurance agent (Paul Cashman of State Farm), our church minister and family of members (El Montecito Presbyterian Church), visitors to our church who gave us their furnished townhouse in Montecito (true miracle workers), our nonprofit family of volunteers (Santa Barbara Navy League), and several professionals at the city planning office who were doing everything in their power to speed up the recovery, documentation and permitting process that has allowed us to begin building our new home within one year of the fire that claimed all we had.
No, let me rephrase that — the fire that claimed all of the physical things we had. In the long run, the fire took possessions but gave us something far more valuable in return. It gave us the love and caring acts of generosity and compassion that we may never have experienced without the fire loss. It gave us a firsthand understanding of how God works to provide strength, comfort and peace when it appears that our world has fallen apart.
Since the fire, our son, Army 1st Lt. Justin Crawford, has returned safely from war on the streets of Baghdad; our daughter and son-in-law, Jacquelyn and Stephen Smith, gave us our first grandson, Spencer Franklin Smith; and we have received our insurance proceeds, with the help of many contractor and insurance professionals.
And, finally, we have designed and begun building our new home on Las Alturas Road.
— Doug Crawford is a Santa Barbara resident and Tea Fire survivor.