Tea Fire Forum Brings Out the Community in Montecito

Tea Fire Forum Brings Out the Community in Montecito

27 January 2009

published by www.noozhawk.com

USA –Still reeling 74 days after the Tea Fire, Montecito residents packed the El Montecito Presbyterian Church hall Monday to discuss the disaster.

“Oh, it’s going to take a long time,” said Bill Palladini of theMontecito Association, which hosted the event. “This one really hurt.”

A panel of representatives from several local agencies was on hand to provide perspectives and probe the response to the wildfire, which ignited around 5:45 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Tea House above Mountain Drive, a popular after-hours hangout for locals. The fire destroyed 210 homes while scorching almost 2,000 acres in the mountainous foothills and canyons of Montecito and eastern Santa Barbara. There were no deaths in the blaze, but dozens of people were injured.

According to Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Wallace, a perfect storm of conditions led to the blaze. Fuel, aridity, steep terrain, limited access and near hurricane-strength winds all played into the combustible mix.

“This fire, once it started, was going to happen,” Wallace said.

So fierce and fast moving was the blaze that for the first few hours, the fire department’s only hope was to evacuate residents with the help of law enforcement andSanta Barbara County Search & Rescue volunteers while trying to make a stand against the flames. Attempts to box in the fire were thwarted by embers hurled by gale-force gusts. Late that Thursday, with the help of many out-of town strike teams, firefighters finally were able to adopt a more offensive stance against the blaze.

A critical element, said Wallace, was the deployment of night-flying firefighting helicopters at the peak of the fire. Although it was extremely dangerous, with weather conditions, darkness, treacherous topography and power lines, the aircraft made more than 800 sorties from a staging area atSanta Barbara Junior High.

While ultimately grateful to the firefighters and law enforcement for their heroism, many residents remained frustrated by things they thought could have been handled better, as well as unforeseen difficulties presented by the disaster.

Some reported getting reverse 9-1-1 calls at 10 p.m., hours after the Tea Fire had eaten through their neighborhood. Others claimed they did not see any fire engines in their neighborhoods during their evacuations. Traffic was another concern for the semi-rural community, as neighbors reported difficulties getting away in the general confusion, smoke and ash.

For the Montecito Fire Department, there were several lessons learned, as well: better staging in the brush-heavy, mountainous terrain, better communication.

“We don’t have a common radio frequency for the front country,” Wallace said of an element on which the department is currently working.

As for the too-late reverse 9-1-1 calls, tied-up or damaged phone lines were to blame: too many calls from concerned family and friends created a digital traffic jam for cell-phone users while downed communication lines made it impossible for other calls to reach homes.

The issue of who is ultimately responsible for the fire was still on the minds of some residents, who asked why authorities have not released the names of the individuals who were present at a Tea House bonfire the night before the wildfire began.

While not at liberty to speak on the identities of the 10 individuals, nine of whom are said to be SBCC students, sheriff’s Lt. Eric Koopmans said the investigation has been completed, and it is essentially up to theDistrict Attorney’s Office to provide such information. Speculation on the identities has ignited its own firestorm of theories in the last couple of months.

Not all was anger and frustration, however. Several people commended the fire departments and law enforcement for their effectiveness against a blaze that is said to have been expected, given the conditions and history of the area.

“I think I speak on behalf of a lot of people,” said one commenter. “We’re very impressed with the work that you do.”

And some solutions were suggested, including a siren system to give neighbors warning and a bond measure to fund extensive brush clearing to prevent fuel buildup.

There was not enough time to address every concern, but the meeting is only one of a series planned by the Montecito Association. Future meetings will explore the aftermath, the ongoing cleanup and future preventative measures.

“I think any time you provide an opportunity like this it’s good because it allows for two things,” said1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal. “It allows for continuous process improvements, as well as continued healing and venting.”

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