Saturday, May 9, 2009

Santa Barbara Jesusita Fire Day 5

The fire fighters received the natural reprieve they required to gain control over the Jesusita Fire. The winds have abated and the moist air of a marine layer moved in today. So have the politicians.

In the beginning of the week, press conferences were conducted by our local Fire Chief and Mayor. Now, an ensemble of beaurocrats all the way up to our Federal Congressperson stand en masse for this International photo opportunity huffing and puffing as if they were on the Jesusita Fire's front line about the funds, technological and personnel resources committed, and their final authorization to bring in the big guns, one of the two DC10's, designed to drop as much as 12,000 gallons of fire retardant at a time. It arrived yesterday. "The conditions have been met to use it effectively." Translated, "We moved as fast as we could, but the system is clogged by budgetary constraints and now, it is the politically correct time since natural conditions have changed so whatever we now do is nearly guaranteed to coincide with success."

There are going to be those now who huff and puff as if they are on the line fighting this fire that not enough was done, soon enough. In my humble opinion, and those who know me will vouch for the fact that I have no problem voicing it as of late, fighting this fire is a classic example of "man vs. nature." Something we have been doing since modern civilization began.

The Chumash Indians of this area moved to the beach when wild fires staked their claim of the hills. Then, the Chumash did not overpopulate, overdevelop or attempt to take control over their environment as we Modern civilites do.
It does not matter how much or how soon resources are committed, a wildfire cannot be stopped until nature cooperates. All that can be done is to contain it within its natural environment. That our firefighters did miraculously well.

You might say, at current count 75 homes were lost....... Yes. Peoples' lives are gravely affected by this loss. I feel very deeply for them and do not intend to belittle that loss. The lost structures were within relatively sparsely populated areas, and far more homes in these mountain foothill and canyon communities were saved by pre-planning, fire fighters' heroic efforts and luck, than were lost.

If you understand the population distribution and geography of Santa Barbara you will understand why I am expressing relief about the loss of 75 structures. Santa Barbara is roughly 3-4 miles wide and 12 miles long. It is bordered on the North and South by mountains and Ocean. Population density greatly increases as you move down from the canyon areas, into the foothills and down to the beach. Every panned shot of Santa Barbara illustrates, as does the satellite map prepared by Google for this event.

The Jesusita Fire engulfed the entire face of the mountains above Santa Barbara. As dramatic as the footage of burning hills may be, it is nothing compared to what might have been. At anytime, the wind could have shifted from onshore to offshore to force the flames down any one or more of the many canyons that were all at one time burning. That would have changed this technological man vs. nature fight, where aerial assaults of water and fire retardant drops can be conducted with limited damage. (The fire retardant may be more damaging than we know, but I'll leave that question to be answered when its not our savior.) Into hand to hand, house to house combat through densely populated exploding homes and businesses.

In a wildfire fight confined to its natural environment fire fighters bulldoze and cut fire breaks through chaparral that will reseed. Chaparral actually enjoys the pruning and fertilization the slash and burn provides. In a City, the fire fighters would have been mowing down homes on City streets. Talk about the political fall out of plowing down the wrong contributors' home!

The effect on air quality of burning chaparral and poison oak, although unhealthy, is nothing compared to the environmental fallout and health effects of the ash from a City full of burnt carpet, cars and god knows what went into the construction and is stored within the structures of a more than 200 year old City.

If fire fighters had not been successful in keeping the Jesusita Fire at bay, our one and only artery in and out of the City, Highway 101, would quickly become clogged and as recently happened in Australia when a fire ran through too quickly for evacuees to outrun, deadly. The rest of us would run for the beach. Some would drown as the crowds pushed them from the sand into the water.

That is what our firefighters prevented from happening by keeping the Jesusita Fire within the confines of its natural habitat. It was with confidence that they would do just that that we peacefully vacated our homes, and did our best to stay out of their way.

Yes. More than 30,000 of us are temporarily inconvenienced by the evacuation. In doing so, we had to make decisions about what was most important. There is something grounding and cathartic about doing just that. My husband, our dog and my life, everything else, I could let everything go and start from scratch. I might even find it a relief, a chance to rebuild and redefine myself. I love change.

My husband is much different than me. He is very attached to his pattern and a life of collecting photographs, artifacts, books and artwork. He would be greatly wounded by loss of any of these, let alone all. Among his "stuff" are fin designs and prototypes. He also has 1,000's of 35 mm slides and super 8 movie footage, along with log books and survey data documenting years of expeditions photo-documenting the life as it developed beneath the oil platforms of the Santa Barbara Channel, and the California Channel Islands.

His Channel Islands Collection includes images taken from within the seal rookeries, where he was given access by the National Parks Service before passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. These things are his creations and life. They are unique. They are irreplaceable. Their loss would have taken from my husband a part of his life that he cherishes. It would have also represented a great loss to humanity.

Just 2 weeks ago, we had written the Director of New York Museum of Modern Art to ask if they were interested in housing his photographic collection. We decided to start there since my husband's design, the Tan Delta Force Fin is already part of the permanent collections of their Department of Architecture and Design. Instead of waiting for a response, I think I will take this time, while local business in the store is slowed down due to the fire to expand the field of institutions to which we make this offer.

That is my resolution from the Jesusita Fire. I am going to find a safe home for my husband's Offshore Oil Platform and Channel Islands Collection of photographs. Maybe then next time we are asked to evacuate, and the fires will return, I will be able to bother to think about what is most important to me. Maybe that is not a such a good thing.

Its time now to get back to work. The mandatory evacuation order for our neighborhood has been lifted. We are free to return to our home, and I have a bride whose wedding dress I need to get made. Our fabric choices therefor are the subject of our next and much more germane to MsFineFabrics blog post.

I am thankful to my special friends, Ichak and Nurit Adizes, who made this adventure all too pleasant by offering us accommodations that rival the best spas in the World. But, even if I had to lay my head down on the floor of Fine Fabrics this entire week, as we did the first night of our evacuation, or in the back of our Volvo station wagon as many others did, I am thankful I am among the fortunate few that had the opportunity to be a refugee in the paradise called Santa Barbara.


  1. Alot of the ecological points raised in the Day 5 article are valid, and should be viewed with a poignant immediacy often left by the wayside when evaluating real estate development. As an anthropologist and archaeologist I'm in an unique position to have studied the Chumash and their life-ways and impact on the environment of the Santa Barbara coast and foothills. The native populations practiced extensive land management and grass-seed cultivation, understanding that controlled burns were necessary to arrest the build-up of dry weeds and kindling. Without these techniques, fires would have been much less frequent, but massive (and potentially deadly) when they occured.

    This is what we're experiencing as a population now. We have developed real estate in the Santa Barbara area to such an extent that our desire for new homes and no fires has bred a condition perfect to foster exactly what is happening now: massive, destructive fires. The response has been swift and amazing, and the aid superb, proving once again that Gov. Schwarzenegger is the right man for the job.

    The solution, however, shouldn't be after the fact, but rather should address the known problems BEFORE the fires happen. Goats are one thing, but controlled burns and intellegent land management with a view to the future another.


  2. Very glad you and your home and dog and husband are all safe. I'm very sorry for the loss of property of others, but - as I was reminded today - it's just stuff. Take care and good luck with the wedding dress. It's time to resume life for a bit.