Betsy Collins recalls setting foot in the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden just days after the Jesusita Fire swept through the foothills above Santa Barbara in May 2009.
The wooded creekbed of Mission Creek that cut through the garden, once green and thriving, “looked like a moonscape,” said Collins, who is director of horticulture for the garden and has worked there for 23 years.
Every leaf had fallen off the trees where the fire had rushed through, leaving a thick layer of gray ash in its wake.
Seventy percent of the garden’s 78 acres were affected by the fire, although the core of the garden was saved because of the hard work of local firefighters.
Seeing that destruction “was a very emotional experience,” Collins said, and even days after, the staff worked to put out spot fires still smoldering on the grounds of the garden at 1212 Mission Canyon Road.
But within two weeks, Collins began seeing green shoots reaching upward.
“There is an aspect of renewal,” she said of the wildfire.
That renewal is evident these days throughout the garden, where several hundred people gathered Thursday to christen a newly built bridge that replaces one destroyed in the fire.
The original Campbell Bridge was built in 1941 and connected the garden’s trail system by bridging Mission Creek. The bridge was lost to the fire, but thanks to more than 400 individual donations, $81,000 was raised for its replacement.
Supporters got a chance to walk over the bridge and take in the beauty of the creekbed, which is green and flourishing once again.
Peter Lapidus, project manager for the bridge rebuild, said “it’s not often we get to work in a place like this where we can bring our families back to enjoy it.”
He said many of the contractors and subcontractors on the project had never been to the botanic garden at all, and were excited to share it with their families.
Just moments later, the garden’s executive director, Steve Windhager, cut the ribbon spanning the bridge with a pair of gold-plated landscape shears.
Windhager said the garden is in the middle of capital campaign that will fund the rebuilding of two structures destroyed in the Jesusita Fire, including an old house that was used to hold tools and as a horticultural facility.
A conservation center is in the works to be built in that location now.
This week the garden’s cultural landscape plan was approved by the Santa Barbara County Historic Landmarks Advisory Commission, and in some ways, the fire presented the opportunity for the garden to make changes that weren’t possible before.
For example, the fire destroyed many of the large trees on the garden’s east side, but the absence of those trees has restored historic views, which look out majestically on the Pacific Ocean.
Click here to learn more about the garden’s rebuilding efforts or contribute to its capital campaign.