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Local News

Tea Fire Families Moving Forward, Regardless of Whether They Rebuild

Arraignment pending for 10 charged with fire-related misdemeanors but these survivors see a bigger picture.

Doug Crawford's view from atop Las Alturas Road is one of breathtaking beauty but his focus now is rebuilding on the charred ground beneath his feet.
Doug Crawford’s view from atop Las Alturas Road is one of breathtaking beauty but his focus now is rebuilding on the charred ground beneath his feet. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Staring out at the charred and empty lot where his house used to stand, Doug Crawford is all smiles. After the Tea Fire claimed his family’s home on Las Alturas Road in November, he doesn’t take anything for granted.

“We escaped with our lives,” he said. “We were thinking Santa Barbara was going to burn.”

As he and his wife, Karen, watched their home on the hill burn from below, they knew they had lost keepsakes belonging to their grown children, mementos they would never get back. But Crawford said they’ve gained much throughout the process of losing everything.

As he pulled the blueprints to his new home out of his car and unrolled the plans, it’s clear he and his family are on the cusp of a new beginning. They’ve already been given the go-ahead from the city of Santa Barbara, and they’ll start rebuilding their house in six weeks.

As many families in the 2,000-acre burn area are deciding whether to rebuild or move on, many questions remain unanswered. The biggest unknown, who started the blaze that destroyed 230 homes, has left many residents and those affected by the fire grappling for closure. Last week the names of 10 suspects were released, and as they face arraignment Monday on misdemeanor charges of trespassing and building an illegal campfire, an entire community may be wondering what’s next.

The anger of many puzzles Crawford, who said he’s noticed a “lynch-mob mentality” toward the suspects among Santa Barbarans, many of whom didn’t lose their homes in the Tea Fire.

As the father of two grown children, Crawford has more compassion. “That could’ve been my son,” he said.

He said if the 10 were trespassing, like many people in the Tea Garden area have in the past, they should be punished for that. But Crawford said he feels they put out the fire and were conscientious about the problem. He also commended the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office for protecting the identities of the 10 individuals until the investigation was complete.

Doug Crawford says he and his wife, Karen, have been blessed by the community's response to their plight and that of other Tea Fire survivors.
Doug Crawford says he and his wife, Karen, have been blessed by the community’s response to their plight and that of other Tea Fire survivors. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

“I have absolutely no malice toward them,” said Crawford, who helps his wife lead the Navy League of Santa Barbara. “It was an act of God. It wasn’t a bunch of kids that started the fire.”

Just before the Tea Fire ignited Nov. 13, a gust of hot wind blew past the Crawfords’ house, breaking windows and ripping the screen of one of the home’s doors.

“I said to Karen ‘That’s fire weather’,” he recalled, and within an hour, they were fleeing for their lives.

“Some of the best things have come out of this,” Crawford said. People he didn’t even know showed up to help the family sort through the remains of their home, a process he likened to an “archaeological dig.” After telling their story to their congregation at El Montecito Presbyterian Church, Crawford said they were approached by someone they hadn’t previously met, who handed the Crawfords keys to their vacant townhome and told them to stay as long as they needed to. Crawford has set up a drafting table in one of the bedrooms, where he works on their new home’s plans.

Just down the road from the Crawfords’, Laurie Ashton’s home on Camino Verde was destroyed and she and her family are still deciding whether to rebuild. Ashton also said she doesn’t hold the 10 responsible for what happened to her house.

“I think they left thinking they had put it out,” she said. The level of intent and negligence wasn’t there, said Ashton, adding that she feels the entire community needs to be educated on how to put out fires. “Everyone has been in a situation where they needed to put out a campfire,” she said.

While the Ashtons are still weighing whether to rebuild, the suspects who will be arraigned Monday won’t affect how she approaches the future.

“I’m not looking for closure with them,” she said. “Them being charged is not going to affect to our mindset.”

After her home of 16 years was destroyed, Melissa Marsted and her family grappled with the decision to rebuild their house on Coyote Road.

“We had to ask ourselves ‘Do we really want to go back?’” said Marsted, who is currently living in a rental in Summerland. After discussing it with her family, Marsted said they just made the decision to rebuild Thursday.

“It feels really good to know,” she said.

What had once been Doug Crawford's stately home was reduced to what he described as more like
What had once been Doug Crawford’s stately home was reduced to what he described as more like “an archaeological dig.” (Crawford family photo)

Marsted, an author and Noozhawk contributor, was at home with her oldest son when they got word of the fire, and they spent nearly an hour packing up belongings before vacating. Fortunately, many family keepsakes had been in storage.

Since the fire, she said she spends two hours a day working on insurance claims and other fire-related paperwork.

“It’s been a long process,” she said. “I just got them to pay for my septic tank.”

Despite her slog through the logistics of rebuilding, Marsted doesn’t harbor any malice.

“I don’t feel any anger toward them. It was a perfect storm that night,” she said. “We know that we live in an area prone to fire and it could happen at any time.”

Marsted said what scared her most was not knowing whether she knew any of the 10 individuls before their names were released. It was a huge relief to find out she had never met any of them, she said..

Back on top of the hill on Las Alturas, the view of the Pacific is unobstructed through the lot where Crawford’s new home will be built. He said he was troubled that the ranch hands who accidentally started the Zaca Fire in July 2007 were incarcerated, and said he felt they were just doing their jobs when calamity struck.

“Where is all the grace? Accidents happen,” he said. “We have insurance to protect us against unexpected losses. These kids are not guilty.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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