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Amid Emotions of Losing It All, ‘Ladies of the Tea Fire’ Help Survivors Rebuild

Forged by wildfire, women band together to share experiences, advice, encouragement — and the triumph of spirit

About 20 women converged last Thursday evening at Rosie Thompson’s Stanwood Drive home. The women came from all different walks of life, but shared a bond forged from the worst possible circumstances: Wildfire had destroyed their homes.

They call themselves “Ladies of the Tea Fire,” even though some lost their homes in the subsequent Jesusita Fire, and they’ve become much more than a support group grappling with the emotional aftermath of disaster and comparing notes on the arduous process of rebuilding.

More than 200 houses were destroyed when fierce sundowner winds sent the Tea Fire racing through the Montecito foothills and up to Santa Barbara’s Riviera late on the afternoon of Nov. 13, 2008. Six months later, on May 5, 2009, the Jesusita Fire ignited above Santa Barbara, destroying 80 homes as it raged for three days.

Hundreds of residents were displaced, left to wander through the bewildering maze of insurance claims, permits to rebuild and the lingering — and starkly personal — question of whether to start over at all.

In Nov. 2009, a group of women wrestling with all of those questions met in Tea Fire survivor Kathy Johnson’s rental home. She led that first meeting with friend and fellow Tea Fire survivor, Cathy Steinke. The pair formed the group, which has been meeting monthly ever since.

Kathy Johnson, left, and Cathy Steinke are co-founders of the Ladies of the Tea Fire group.
Kathy Johnson, left, and Cathy Steinke are co-founders of the Ladies of the Tea Fire group. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Before last week’s meeting at her house in bucolic Sycamore Canyon, Thompson shared with Noozhawk some of her experiences from the Tea Fire, recounting with clarity the events of that fateful day.

She and her husband, Addison, a former Santa Barbara planning commissioner, had lived in their home near Parma Park for three years. Muralist Vidya Gauci was over that day, painting a wall scene, and the two women took a break for lunch outside. Feeling the temperature rise and the eerie sundowner winds beginning to whip up, Gauci expressed concerns about a fire.

“I told her, ‘If I lost my home I would die’,” Thompson recounted. At this, Gauci, who is Catholic like Thompson, responded, “Don’t get attached to material things.”

That would become a harbinger of the days, weeks and months to come. Shortly afterward, Thompson drove away from her house for the last time, after gathering some of her favorite things. A Waterhouse painting, a large vase from Italy, family photos and the couple’s computers were all stuffed in the car.

The Thompsons headed down to the Santa Barbara Mission, where others were gathering. At that point, Thompson said she realized she and her husband didn’t even have a change of clothing.

“I remember thinking a homeless person has more than me,” she said.

Over the next few days, the Thompsons repeatedly tried to return to their house to see if it was still standing, holding out hope that it had been spared. But soon enough, a firefighter confirmed their fears: the home had burned to the ground.

“(Addison) thinks our house was in flames just minutes after we left,” she said.

A few things remained in the rubble, and were unearthed like hidden treasures. Thompson found some family jewelry and her class ring among the ashes. Her husband, a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, discovered his steel diploma. But most of their possessions were gone.

Moving quickly into the planning process, the couple was among the first to rebuild — taking just six months. Addison Thompson, a city planning commissioner at the time, has extensive knowledge of planning and design, and their new plans were almost identical to those of their old home. Still, Thompson said, city workers diligently made sure that the Thompsons were shown no favoritism.

“We had every box checked,” she said.

Even as the Thompsons rebuilt, some of the neighbors around them cut their losses and moved on. One neighboring family was in a creek zone and found the permitting to be so tight and costly to rebuild that they moved elsewhere.

Many of the women who attend the Ladies of the Tea Fire meetings are single moms with full-time jobs, so overseeing the rebuilding of a house — challenging under any circumstance — can be overwhelming.

“We’re retired, so it’s a little different,” Thompson said. “But when you’re by yourself trying to figure all this stuff out, it’s really scary.”

As women began to trickle into the meeting, they provided updates on their new homes. One woman announced she’ll have drywall going up soon, which solicited a little cheer from friends standing nearby.

“The whole idea was to help others,” Steinke said of the Ladies of the Tea Fire origins. “We’re all trying to do this with the insurance allowance we’ve been given.”

Steinke is hoping to move into her Conejo Road home by March.

Johnson, the group’s other co-founder, arrived, and when asked what one piece of advice she would give to others in her situation, she said she would encourage fire survivors to remember that what they’ve lost are just things. The friendships and sense of community have been the best things to come out of the fire, she said, and her family’s exhilaration of the first holiday in their new home was wonderful.

Each of the women at the meeting is at a different place in the process. Several had just submitted building plans, some are undergoing construction, others have finished their projects. Part of the fun of being in the group is when someone finishes construction and a meeting is held in the new house. Then the support and rebuilding come full circle.

In the course of the two-hour meeting, everything from mortgages, construction loans and insurance were touched on. At one point, one woman asked if those who were underinsured at the time of the fire would raise their hands. Nearly all did.

Karen Lord led the topic of the night — a feature the group calls “Oops, Our Mistakes and Unpleasant Surprises” — and provided advice to those going through the process. Things like paying subcontractors directly, paying attention to what you’re being billed for and getting everything in writing were among the invaluable pointers.

The women laughed and consoled each other about the hardships, and sometimes downright infuriating parts of rebuilding. Filled with the practical, the meeting also showcased the poignant.

“I’ve lost it all once, so how did doorknobs become a big deal?” remarked one woman who is in the middle of rebuilding. “It keeps it all in perspective.”

For more information about the Ladies of the Tea Fire meetings, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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