Tea Fire, November 13, 2008
I was on the couch watching the news when a friend called to say there
was a fire above Montecito. I drove over to Gibralter Rd., where there
was a good view to the east. The fire was burning along a ridge about
a quarter mile above Mountain Drive, 4 miles to our east, and heading
south very rapidly. I could see emergency vehicles winding along the
roads. Within a few minutes, the fire had jumped Mountain Drive. When
a Santa Barbara County Sheriff arrived to close the road, I headed
home, calling my nephew Justin and asking him to drive up to our place
to help Laura, his 89-year-old grandmother, pack up and leave. Her
small house sits on a parcel adjacent to ours, at the bottom of the
hill. My wife, Story, was at a class in town. I couldn't reach her.
When I got home, I stopped at Laura's house. Justin was already there,
stuffing the cat into its travel cage and loading up Laura's Jeep.
Story called me and I headed up the hill to our house. On the way, I
ran into Raven, the young woman who takes care of Story's horses. Her
boyfriend, Andy, had driven her up there, and she was saddling up to
ride and lead the two horses down towards town. I did not envy her, on
the road with 2 horses in 60 mile-per-hour winds while emergency
vehicles raced uphill with sirens wailing. Andy, whose house on
Mountain Drive is very close to the start of the fire, had been in
town and could not get home.
Story was already at our house, distributing the white K-Mart laundry
baskets bought years before for just this event. Into these baskets
went paintings and sculpture, photographs and papers, everything that
could never be replaced. We had done this before during fire threats,
so it was obvious what to load up. Musical instruments, computer hard
drives, boxes of important papers, a suitcase full of clothes for each
of us, pets and pet food. The cat could not be found -- a problem for
Three of my co-workers, Mike, Thad, and Carlos, arrived to help. They
carried everything down to the driveway, starting by filling the old
Suburban we keep just for this purpose. Then they loaded their trucks
with furniture and all of my tools from the shed. At this point, the
Mt. Calvary ridge and St. Mary's Seminary to our east was still
blocking any direct view of flames, but the ever-growing red glow in
the sky was ominous.
Story left for town while the guys pulled out all of the fire hoses,
pumps and foaming equipment from the steel box where it had all been
sitting for years. They unrolled hoses and attached them to hydrants
around the house. They hooked up the hoses to a device which injects
fire retardant into the water, and made a complete circuit of the
house, covering all the doors, windows and exposed wood with a sticky,
soapy foam. We could now see huge flames on the ridges to the east.
Mike, Thad, and Carlos left for town. I drove down to the 2 other
houses on the lower parcel. Laura lives in a frame house built in
1977. Fifteen years ago, we installed a fire sprinkler system on the
outside of the house. It is built from PVC pipe strapped under the
eaves and on the roof, fitted with about 20 big Rainbird rotating
sprinklers, and controlled with a 2" valve. It had not been tested for
a few years. I opened up the valve and the system charged. Almost
immediately, I heard a "pop", and saw that a joint had come unglued up
near the roof. Bummer. I had to shut it off. I went down to the other
house, a beautiful, hundred-year-old redwood farmhouse where our good
friends Walter and Patty live with their daughter, Estelle. We had
installed a hydrant at the deck years ago and left 100 feet of fire
hose coiled up and ready. I hooked up the hose to the hydrant and
unrolled the full 100 feet.
I got back up to my house. I got some PVC glue in order to repair
Laura's sprinklers and tied an extension ladder on the roof of my
truck. As I started down the road, a Sheriff's cruiser raced up next
to me. The officer told me there was a mandatory evacuation and I had
to leave immediately. I agreed and drove down the driveway while he
negotiated the 3-point turn in front of our house. Halfway down the
hill, I turned into one of the dirt roads that serve our avocado grove
and shut off my lights. A moment later, the sheriff drove down the
driveway and out towards town.
I set the ladder against Laura's house and climbed up to re-glue the
broken pipe. I would have to let it dry at least an hour, so I left
the system "off" and headed back up the hill.
To my horror, I saw Mt. Calvary Retreat House completely engulfed in
flames. This beautiful and historic structure, 2 ridges to the east,
was a mansion built by a Mid-western millionaire in the 1920's, later
gifted to the Anglican Church. In recent years, it has served as a
retreat house for seminars, religious conferences, yoga intensives,
etc. It was shocking to see it in flames, 1/2 mile away. The fire had
now moved 3 miles towards us. I sat in my truck, listening to the
local radio, staring eastward, waiting for the glue to dry, wondering
where the fire would hit our property first. There was, as yet, no
sign of fire fighters, although Rattlesnake Canyon, between Mt.
Calvary and St. Mary's Seminary on the closest ridge, was certainly
burning, as the orange glow from behind St. Mary's got bigger and
I now had the answer. I could see flames coming around the slope
directly below and to the south of St. Mary's. This meant the 2 lower
structures would be threatened first. I drove down the hill.
I turned on the system at Laura's house and the PVC repair held! The
house was quickly drenched in water, pouring off the roof and under
the eaves. I ran down to the Walter and Patty's house. The fire was a
few hundred feet away, racing down the hill through brush and dried
grass as it headed towards the eucalyptus trees that line the creek at
the east side of the property. These trees are less than 100 feet from
the house and were already catching fire and showering the house with
embers. A big live oak sits in front of the house, covering most of
the roof with its branches. Close behind the house sits a redwood tree
which covers much of the rest of the roof. I opened the hydrant and
began to pour hundreds of gallons of water into these trees and onto
the roof to keep the embers from igniting the trees and the house. It
Fire trucks began to arrive and attack the fire in the eucalyptus
trees. Meanwhile, spot fires had appeared all over the avocado grove
behind the houses. Dead leaves, the mulch below the trees, were
burning, although the avocados had not yet ignited. I went up to
Laura's house. It might drown, but it would not burn.
The wind began to abate. Immediately, the firemen went on the
offensive, now better able to manage the spread of the fire. More
trucks arrived, perhaps 4 in all, with 15 - 20 crewmen. If the wind
stayed calm, our driveway was the south-western boundary of the Tea
Fire. The row of Eucalyptus, which stretches next to our driveway for
perhaps 800 feet northward, was being ignited by burning debris at
ground level, moving slowly towards our house. The firemen stretched
the hose from Walter and Patty's house down to the road to refill the
tanks in their engines. More engines and crews arrived. The strategy
appeared to be to put an engine in the driveway of every house in the
I could see that something was burning up at the property of our
neighbors, Greg and Judith. They live to the west of our avocado
grove, atop the next small ridge. Airborne embers must have
leapfrogged the grove, the horse pasture to its west, and the row of
eucalyptus at the property line. I drove up and found an engine from
the City of Arcadia Fire Department. The house was unhurt, although
they had lost the small building that served as Greg's office. Firemen
were hosing down spot fires in the olive trees. They had saved the
An SUV with 2 commanders arrived, heading up the road to our house.
They were from the Simi Valley Fire Dept., and they were scouting for
a spot to station 1 or 2 engines in case the fire moved around the
north side of St. Mary's, across the canyon, straight towards our
house. They liked the spot, and called for an engine, which arrived in
a few minutes with a crew of 4. One commander instructed these guys to
get out chain saws and start clearing brush further down the steep
hill in front of our house. They asked if they could take out an olive
tree and a small oak right next to the driveway. No problem. We were
proud of the "defensible space" we had cleared around our house over
the years. For these firemen, however, it was not enough. The slope is
steep and thick with chaparral that hasn't burned since 1964. It is
what they call a "chimney", and the eucalyptus trees at the bottom,
500 feet or so away, were crowning with flame. I made coffee.
All of a sudden, the northwest corner of the fire came over the
closest ridge to our east. The chaparral was sending flames up 50 feet
or more. The fire was now coming straight at our house from 2
directions. Stan, the commander from Simi, asked me to turn my truck
around and point it down the road. He said it might get "very
exciting". I complied, then made more coffee.
The wind was now almost completely still. The fire had stopped moving.
It was about 400 yards to our east and 250 yards to our south. The
fire crew sat waiting. By now, helicopters with night vision
capability were dropping water and retardant on the edges of the fire.
I started calling neighbors to give them reports on their houses. I
drove back to Gibralter Rd. and saw incredible devastation. Many
houses gone, the chaparral completely gone from the steep mountain
sides, Mt. Calvary just a smoking ruin with its chimney still upright.
When I got home, the firemen were resting in their rigs.
Several engines and crew trucks arrived down in the eucalyptus forest.
These were the "hand crews", brought in to manually finish off the
fire with picks and shovels. They were amazing. They cut a trail along
the northern boundary of the fire below our house and hauled hundreds
of feet of yellow hose up the steep hill from the engines. They call
their work "flood and grub". The smoldering debris is slowly turned
over and flooded and broken up until they are sure it is cold. Very
labor-intensive, particularly on a steep hill in hot weather. Their
average age looked to be about 21. These guys made me think about
Ronald Reagan, who once said: "The scariest 9 words in the English
language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help'. " What
The Simi Valley Fire Dept. engine company departed, confident that the
hand crews, the helicopters, and the huge DC-10 that was now dropping
12,000 gallons of retardant with each pass, would put this fire to
I put myself to bed until dark.
Four days later:
The Tea Fire has been declared 100% contained.
Re-reading the time-line, I worry that someone else will get hurt
trying to fight a brush fire without some critical advantages that
1) Being on the western fringe of the fire, we had far more warning
than most of the victims. The fire took 6 hours to reach us. By that
time, fire engines were here from cities 100 miles away.
2) We were incredibly lucky to have the wind stop when and where it stopped.
3) We had been anticipating this event and planning for decades.
4) We live on a large parcel of land. We don't have to concern
ourselves with danger from our neighbors' landscaping or building
5) I am a plumbing contractor with appropriate skills.
6) We have a private well and water storage as a back-up to municipal
Having since found out about friends who lost their homes, and seen
the destruction in their neighborhoods, it feels somewhat
inappropriate to communicate our good fortune.
Finally, the incident with the sheriff is troubling. He was doing his
best to save people's lives, while risking his own. He and I both knew
he could not legally force me off my property, so my evasion was the
simplest solution, avoiding any discussion of the situation.