As fires advance in Santa Barbara, residents flee to friends' homes

In the fourth fire here in two years, evacuation has become a well-honed ritual for some.

Dan Wood/ The Christian Science Monitor
Evacuatees: Asked to leave their homes in Santa Barbara, Jessica Bickham (r.) and Pamela Gilbert sit at their friend’s home Thursday in the nearby suburb of Hope Ranch, watching television for news of the fire sweeping the region.

Beneath the plumes of grey and brown smoke which cast eerie shadows over this town – the result of wind-swept fires that continue to swirl in the dry, mountainous canyons west of the main streets – calm and quiet prevail. Almost 30,000 of the town's residents have been ordered to evacuate, but with the Red Cross evacuation centers several miles apart – from a high school well north of town to a show ground within the city limits – most evacuees are staying with friends and family, or in hotels.

"Santa Barbara is small enough that when you have a disaster like this, the community really pulls together," says Susan Forkush, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, which has set up hundreds of cots in the Dos Pueblos High School gym. The Salvation Army is providing meals, local pizza parlors have donated stacks of pizza, and local bakeries have trucked in cupcakes.

On Thursday, the third day of the fires, only half of the 200 cots in the high school were being used. Local electronics stores have donated big screen TVs, around which mostly elderly evacuees sit, kept cool by whirring fans.

By Friday, the fourth fire here in two years had reportedly burnt around 3,000 acres and destroyed some 75 homes. No civilian casualties have been reported so far, but the blaze has injured 11 firefighters, three of them seriously.

By all accounts, the evacuation operations so far have been well-organized and even more orderly than in previous fires here.

"This is a drill we're really used to," says Jessica Bickham, a forensic scientist, at the home of her friend Marilyn Gutsche in the Hope Ranch section, well west of the fires. Ms. Bickham was evacuated last November, too, in the Tea Fire which destroyed more than 200 homes. She heard about the current fire while on jury duty Tuesday, rushed home to get her cats, and drove down the hill to the Gutsches. And like the last time, she meets Pamela Gilbert, who was evacuated a day later and is also staying at the Gutsches' with her husband and dog.

"Hello again," says Ms. Gilbert with a chuckle. "This is becoming a ritual."

Bickham was better prepared this time around. She had three boxes packed with tax returns, car insurance, and credit card numbers, and sitting next to the door.

"It was really a help to not have to think about this kind of stuff," says Bickham, who is a renter. "You have no idea how long you're going to be gone."

On Thursday night, Marilyn Gutsche got an anxious call from another friend in Hawaii, whose Santa Barbara house sitters were told to leave and who needed a place for her cat. The Gutsches now have four additional critters in tow, adding to the five they already own.

"There's nobody in this town that is not dealing with these fires directly, in some way," says Marilyn. "What's stressful is that nobody knows when they can go home."

With the fire advancing, the upscale town of Montecito nearby – about 10,000 residents – has also been told to evacuate.

"What we're concerned about is sundowner winds," says Lee Bentley, spokesman for California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "The firefighters get close to containing some of the fires during the day when the winds are still and then they kick up at night."

The winds not only whip up fires that are already burning, they carry burning embers to new areas where fires are not yet started. They can land on rooftops and start fires there, or land in the brush and ignite there.

At the Gutsche's home, Bickham and Gilbert sit on a couch and tune into the local TV channel, looking for news about what's happening to their homes. "I just wish I knew, then I could make plans," says Bickham.

The animals are fine, "it's the people who are beginning to wear down," says Marilyn.

On Thursday at midnight, the Hope Ranch homeowners were told to be packed and ready to go, in case the fires come down the hill and jump over route 101 which cuts through town.

"My husband says we're just going to put all our belongings into the middle of the lawn and if the house goes up, we'll just watch it burn," says Marilyn. "But I don't think the fire is going to get down this far."

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