Friday, May 25 , 2018, 1:20 am | Overcast 59º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Victims Try to Come to Grips With Loss in Wake of Montecito Blaze

Many evacuees, including a Santa Barbara planning commissioner, have lost their homes. Others are left to wait and wonder.

Kami and Don Fritzen, who stopped for lunch at a restaurant in the Vons Shopping Center in Montecito, lost their Conejo Road home to the Tea Fire.
Kami and Don Fritzen, who, with their dog, Mulligan, stopped for lunch at a restaurant in the Vons Shopping Center in Montecito, lost their Conejo Road home to the Tea Fire. “We can rebuild, but I know what it’s going to look like,” Fritzen said. “It’s just going to be ashes and bare mountains.” (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

Addison Thompson is a member of the Santa Barbara Planning Commission, so it stands to reason that he had always played by the book when it came to dealing with the fire hazards surrounding his Stanwood Drive home in the foothills near Parma Park.

Just two weeks ago, for instance, he hired a crew to spend the day clearing the brush around the house.

But when the wind-driven Tea Fire came roaring into the neighborhood Thursday evening, none of that mattered.

“When things move that fast, there’s not a whole hell of a lot you can do about it,” Thompson said Friday night, speaking by phone from a friend’s house.

The Thompsons have been told they are among about 150 families who lost their homes in the Tea Fire, which ignited around 5:45 p.m. Thursday at Coyote Road and East Mountain Drive above Montecito’s Cold Spring neighborhood. Dubbed the Tea Fire because of its proximity to the famed Piranhurst Teahouse in the 700 block of East Mountain, the flames spread quickly in high winds gusting to nearly 70 mph and with temperatures in the upper 80s.

Thompson, 68, and his wife, Rosie, were eating dinner when they were interrupted with news of the fire. After going outside to take a look, the burning trees in the distance persuaded them to spring into action. They spent about 15 minutes packing their cars with a few belongings, using flashlights because the power already had gone out.

“When I was getting the car out of the garage, I could hear the fire roaring — trees were popping,” Thompson said. “I said, ‘We gotta move.’”

Throughout the day Friday, many of the fire’s 5,500 evacuees roamed the South Coast, going to grocery stores, eating at restaurants, connecting with friends — all while wondering whether they still had a home.

As with the Thompsons, many evacuees had heard from reliable sources that their homes were no more. Others had to wait and wonder.

Around noon Friday, the uncertainty came to a close for Kami and Don Fritzen, as they ate lunch in a daze at an outdoor restaurant in the Vons Shopping Center in Montecito.

An hour before, the couple, who run the California Wine Festival, had heard from a next-door neighbor that their Conejo Road home was “scorched.”

“It’s weird — you have a sense of loss, but it’s just material things,” said Don, 55. “You have this little fight going on in your head: ‘It’s just material things, it doesn’t matter.’ But it does.”

Said Kami, “We loved our bed, our pillows — the little things you start missing really fast.”

Then, of course, there’s the house, which they had moved into two years ago, shortly after getting married. The two-bedroom place had a woodsy feel; the back of it had glass French doors overlooking the rustic and rolling Parma Park, which is now a charred moonscape.

“We can rebuild, but I know what it’s going to look like,” Don said. “It’s just going to be ashes and bare mountains.”

Like the Thompsons, the Fritzens had only about 15 minutes to load their car. They grabbed photo albums, important papers, computers, the golf clubs, Don’s hole-in-one trophy, and, most important, their dog, a miniature Pincher-Italian greyhound mix named Mulligan.

With the fire raging some 300 yards away in 50 mph winds, it was difficult to think clearly.

“It was a roar like a jet engine,” Don said. “You know the sound a fireplace makes? Just amplify that a million times.”

Lost in the blaze was about $10,000 worth of Willie Mays memorabilia: autographed baseball bats, gloves, jerseys, cards and the like.

Evacuees Geneva Cheves and her mother, Roxanne, find refuge at San Marcos High School, where the gymnasium had been converted into an American Red Cross-Santa Barbara County Chapter emergency shelter lined with 200 cots.
Evacuees Geneva Cheves and her mother, Roxanne, find refuge at San Marcos High School, where the gymnasium had been converted into an American Red Cross-Santa Barbara County Chapter emergency shelter lined with 200 cots. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
Naturally, being connoisseurs of wine, they lost a valuable collection.

On Friday night, they planned to spend the night with close friends. “We saved a bottle of vodka and a six-pack of beer,” Don said. “We might put some damage into that.”

Meanwhile, at a storage facility in Goleta, newly homeless Coyote Road resident Melissa Marsted, a mother of two young boys, locked up the belongings she had managed to salvage during a 45-minute evacuation with her 13-year-old son.

The two had just returned from a run, only to realize they might be saying goodbye to their home forever.

Working as a team, they hauled out a wealth of sentimental items: her sons’ first soccer uniforms, their old classroom art projects and some photo albums, which Marsted, 43, had long ago placed by the door in the event of a fire. Unfortunately, they had to leave a couple large paintings created by Marsted’s artistic grandmother.

“I don’t think it has set in, because we haven’t seen it,” said Marsted, a freelance writer. “I don’t know what it’s going to feel like.”

Later Friday, the avid runner parked her car along Alston Road and ran home to take pictures. What was most distressing was that her house was the only one destroyed. “Why?” she asked, her voice trailing off.

The best-known landmark to perish in the blaze was the 60-year-old Mount Calvary Retreat House & Monastery, which had been home to seven monks, who earn their keep by selling their trademark coffee.

The retreat-house portion of the monastery contained 21 rooms, and was booked every weekend for two years by people seeking a spiritual retreat, said Nancy Bullock, the retreat-house manager.

On Thursday night, the retreat house was inhabited by members of the Center for Courage and Leadership in Santa Barbara, which, ironically, includes Janet Stanley, head of the American Red Cross-Santa Barbara County Chapter.

About 6 p.m., all of the lodgers and the monks had to leave. The monks took up residence at St. Mary’s Retreat House on Los Olivos Street. Standing on the steps, they could see their old home burn.

While firefighters were able to rescue a surprising number of religious relics, the monastery lost a lot of art and the monks were not able to grab many of their few possessions.

“One of them left without his hearing aids,” Bullock said. Another packed his Bible, but didn’t bring extra clothes.

“We want to rebuild,” she said. “We feel like we are a meaningful resource in the community.”

At San Marcos High, where the school gymnasium had been converted into an American Red Cross-Santa Barbara County Chapter emergency shelter lined with 200 cots, Geneva Cheves and her mother, Roxanne, were the only ones in the auditorium Friday afternoon.

A neighbor had told them it was time to evacuate their East Viscaino Road home on the Riviera, in which Geneva has lived since she was a child, more than 50 years ago.

In one Christmas photo they salvaged, Geneva is an 8-year-old girl in pajamas, staring up into the chimney looking for Santa Claus.

The women, whose family has a generations-long hand in the manufacturing of Chivas Regal Scotch, had heard nothing on the status of their home.

Still, they were able to tell rueful jokes.

Asked whether their home would be covered by insurance, they said yes, but Roxanne intimated that that might not spare them from financial harm.

“It’s been my experience that insurance companies figure everybody has deep pockets,” she said, staring at the roof of the gymnasium while lying on her cot. “But when it comes to the insurance companies, they only have watch pockets.”

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