Friday, July 20 , 2018, 5:31 pm | Fair 74º


Local News

Nearly a Year After the Tea Fire, Westmont Faculty Families Return Home

With help of campus community, displaced fire survivors move back in to newly rebuilt houses

Twelve Westmont College faculty families who lost their homes in the Tea Fire almost a year ago have been given keys to their newly rebuilt homes in Las Barrancas, the faculty housing complex west of campus.

The handover ended a year of significant upheaval, as many of the families had moved several times, living with friends or in temporary rentals. Some families delayed the monumental task of moving their belongings, others spent Saturday night in their new homes.

The Tea Fire torched 2,000 acres — nearly four square miles — after igniting Nov. 13 above the Westmont campus in an area known as the Tea Garden. The wildfire destroyed 230 homes and damaged hundreds of others as it burned through Westmont and the Montecito foothills and into Santa Barbara.

At Las Barrancas, 14 homes were destroyed and 27 others damaged by smoke. Within days after the fire, Westmont and the Las Barrancas Homeowner’s Association united, hiring Westmont alumnus Don Erickson to oversee the entire rebuilding process of the college’s buildings and the faculty homes. Within three months, building permits were in place and Parton & Edwards Construction Inc. broke ground April 7 on the first of the 14 homes.

“We are all overcome with a sense of gratitude and relief to be back in our neighborhood with familiar faces, sounds and smells,” said fire survivor Russell Smelley, a kinesiology professor and the school’s cross country and track coach.

“We like living together in this neighborhood. The casual walks and conversations are so vital to our connections. Children playing and laughing, out of sight a lot of the times, but the background sounds of a contented living situation.”

Smelley and his wife, Allison, and their son, Travis, 14, lost almost everything in the fire. As soon as they realized they were in danger, however, they quickly collected keepsakes and belongings of their late daughter, Alyssa, who had died of a brain tumor in 2005 at age 15.

Smelley spoke for many of the families when he expressed his gratitude for the relative ease of the rebuilding process.

“We are grateful for the quick turnaround in getting back home and all the support from the community in the process, Santa Barbara Bank & Trust in managing our finances and lower Westmont Road for bearing the brunt of the necessary construction traffic,” Smelley said.

“Da Pra Associates remade the standing homes and restored the integrity of the homes to pristine condition. Parton & Edwards rebuilt the homes with great care, and three months sooner than anticipated. We are indeed blessed.“

I also lost my home — on Coyote Road west of Las Barrancas — in the Tea Fire and saw the weekend as an opportunity to bring some closure to this traumatic event, hoping to share in some of the joy experienced by the Las Barrancas families. Not only was I a fellow survivor, but I was well-acquainted with several of the families through Cold Spring School, Westmont summer camps and local youth soccer teams.

Driving to the top of Westmont Circle, I continued around, observing a new house flanked by one untouched by the flames — a hopscotch pattern that repeated itself throughout the development. With the mature oak trees that are barely scorched, the residue of the Tea Fire seems less apparent than in other fire-scarred areas where the land remains stark and ravaged. This is just one example in which the path of the fire makes no sense to many of us. I have since learned that fire follows fire and creates its own river.

Westmont psychology professor Tom Fikes and his family — Jerolyn, right, and Tobin — are excited to be back in a home of their own.
Westmont psychology professor Tom Fikes and his family — Jerolyn, right, and Tobin — are excited to be back in a home of their own. (Melissa Marsted / Noozhawk photo)

Seeing the new homes brought chills of joy, not only to me but for all of the families whose lives will become normal again. Moving trucks and SUVs lined driveways with new furniture and loads of boxes. Forced into a frantic evacuation as the flames bore down, almost every family lost all of their household possessions. Family, friends and countless Westmont students brought a warm sense of community back to the neighborhood. I was able to hug the Fikes family — Tom, a psychology professor; his wife, Jerolyn; and their son, Tobin — and help my son’s violin teacher, Phil Ficsor, and his family move into their new homes.

Like many of the fire survivors, we had limited time to pack the items most important to us. My older son and I packed for nearly an hour and included two of his violins and his music. Ficsor and his wife, Claire Maire, five months pregnant at the time, had just 15 minutes to evacuate. On Saturday afternoon, I spent an hour filling my car for the Ficsors. I was given the task of collecting all of their bedding and clothes from the closet at their rental house. Just like the night of the fire, I wanted to fill all of the spaces in the car and added three paintings, a lamp, a few baby toys and a plant.

When I arrived at the Ficsors’ new home, I found the entire Westmont baseball team helping paint the dining room a golden buttercup. The next day, another dozen Westmont students helped move in the furniture. With the birth of Sophie in March, the Ficsors were now a family of four rather than the family of three displaced by the fire. Sophie’s new cotton candy-pink bedroom greeted her warmly, while the bedroom of her 4-year-old brother, Sammy, was decorated with bold stripes and descending parachutes.

With the magnitude of devastation, the stories of treasures that were recovered in the ashes and rubble provided hope to hold onto the past while starting to provide a safe and secure home for our children. Claire Marie Ficsor shared her story about leaving behind her grandmother’s diamond earrings, which she wore almost daily. She recalled leaving them on a ceramic dish in her bathroom on the afternoon of the fire. After the fire, all of us who lost our homes, searched for similar items — anything to hold on to our memories.

Fortunately, the Ficsors retrieved a pile of debris from where the bathroom once stood and within minutes found both earrings — earrings Claire Marie Ficsor was proudly wearing on the day she held her new keys. Others were not so lucky. Perhaps only those who have lived through a fire or other catastrophe can understand the significance of uncovering a child’s perfectly intact piggy bank or a ceramic piece from a fourth-grade school art class, like the shoe and a Presidio replica that were found in my own rubble.

The Las Barrancas homes exude joy, warmth and love, offering a perfect start less than a year from the perils of the Tea Fire. Welcome home, Las Barrancas, welcome home!

Melissa Marsted is a Noozhawk contributor, author and freelance writer.

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