In the fire zone, ‘everybody’s affected now’

In the fire zone, ‘everybody’s affected now’

9 May 2009

published by

USA — Denise Cutbirth and her three teen daughters, two Australian shepherds and a chinchilla named Chinny were on their third day in a two-bedroom suite at Motel 6, which they have taken to calling Noah’s Ark.

David Caffo and his partner, Thom Zimerle, opted for the luxury of the Biltmore Hotel, which knocked its rate down to $250 a night for fire refugees, more than half off the usual cost.

Other than the steep discount, it was hard to tell that anything was out of the ordinary. The seaside hotel had little of the smoke and haze that has settled over much of Santa Barbara, and well-groomed bellhops quietly tended to arriving guests.

David Salvia and Berri Bottomley, meanwhile, ended up at a Red Cross shelter hastily set up at UC Santa Barbara late Thursday. After a night of restless sleep, Salvia, a “wandering minstrel” in the 1960s, sat on his cot strumming the Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back” on his beloved Guild F312 guitar.

As the Jesusita fire continued its fickle leap across the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara, the number of people ordered from their homes grew to more than 30,500.

Authorities said that the mass evacuation — roughly a third of the city’s population– was unprecedented in Santa Barbara history. An additional 29,000 people were warned late Friday to get ready to evacuate in case unpredictable winds pushed the flames in new directions.

“Everybody’s affected now because either you’ve been evacuated or you have someone whose been evacuated in your home,” said Cutbirth, who was picking up clothes, towels and food boxes in the tiny room.

Evacuation orders have become routine for residents of the greater Santa Barbara area, who have seen three major wildfires in the hills above their homes in the last year.

But last year’s fires near Goleta and Montecito sent only a handful of families to shelters. Most opted to stay with friends or family, or in hotels.

This time, as the fire stretched into its fourth day and expanded it boundaries, hundreds of displaced residents have shown up at shelters.

Dos Pueblos High School filled to its 200-person capacity Thursday night as the fire started new wind-whipped runs on both its eastern and western borders, said Red Cross official Mike Shea.

By 11 p.m., refugees were redirected to a new shelter in a recreation center at UC Santa Barbara, Shea said. By Friday afternoon, more than 600 people had signed up to stay there.

Salvia arrived with Bottomley, his longtime companion, about 11 p.m., after they dropped off their cat at a shelter.

Bottomley said they spent much of the night trying to sleep as the cavernous gym filled with new arrivals, many of them elderly. “There weren’t enough cots so they asked the younger people to give them up,” she said. “The man next to us slept sitting up in his mother’s wheelchair so she could have a cot.”

Salvia grabbed his guitar as the couple headed out the door.

“I’ve had it since 1969,” he said. “I didn’t want to lose it.”

Dennis Leidall and his wife, Jessica, tried to keep their three young children happy as they registered at the shelter. Leidall, a manager for a entrepreneurial technology program at the university, took his family to his office in the middle of the night after they were evacuated from their home on Turnpike Road.

They slept on the floor in sleeping bags, with their yellow lab settling down under his desk, Leidall said. The Red Cross set up a separate facility for the handicapped and elderly with special needs at the UCSB campus.

Officials restricted public access to the site but said they were providing specialized medical care.

Those not in shelters fanned out to hotels or bunked with family and friends.

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