When Russell Smelley, a Westmont College kinesiology professor and the school’s cross country and track coach, saw the Tea Fire racing down the mountain toward his neighborhood of faculty housing Thursday, he and his wife, Allison, went straight for their daughter Alyssa’s room.
Alyssa had died of a brain tumor 2½ years before, at age 15, and her belongings in the bedroom were precious.
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“This was the house where she lived and died, so we have memories of her in that room that are significant,” Smelley said Monday.
Still, Smelley didn’t think the fire would reach the house, since he’d long since removed all the flammable brush nearby.
But a few hours later, while driving through the smoke-filled neighborhood in a golf cart as a member of Westmont’s Disaster Emergency Response Team, he saw with his own eyes that he was wrong. His home was in flames.
“I looked at it and said, ‘That’s a tad disappointing,’” he recalled. “It’s one of those things, you know it can happen, so it’s disappointing. ‘Oh, shucks.’ It wasn’t until later that it didn’t feel so good.”
The Smelleys were among 14 faculty families who lost their workforce homes on the leafy campus of the private Christian college, and among 210 families who were burned into homelessness in the Montecito and Santa Barbara foothills.
On Monday, as firefighters beat the once-ferocious Tea Fire into submission, many of these residents — Smelley included — returned to their charred living quarters, where they sifted through the ashes of what had once been their living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens and garages.
The Tea Fire was a weirdly discriminating inferno, sometimes reducing an entire house to powder, while leaving its next-door neighbors virtually unscathed. Some have attributed the hopscotch pattern in part to how the wind-whipped fire at times spread not so much as a moving wall, but rather through the air, in the form of flaming palm-tree fronds, which resembled enormous floating embers the size of basketballs.
In any case, the capricious selection occurred in the neighborhood of Smelley’s home, which was surrounded by standing houses with minimal or no damage.
Smelley said he and his wife spent about 15 minutes collecting valuables.
“We were reasonably calm, but hurried,” he said.
In addition to grabbing items in their daughter’s room — pictures from the wall, some blankets — they took a few other keepsakes, such as a few DVDs, a computer and some letters written by an ancestor of Smelley’s who served as a cobbler in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
Of course, countless possessions were destroyed. Over the weekend, Smelley procured some tools for sifting through the rubble. A popular presence on campus, he respectfully declined offers to help look through the ashes. The idea wasn’t so much for he and his wife to recover possessions as to contemplate the memories of what was lost.
“We want to be able to sift it and remember it, and cry over it, if need be,” he said.
On Monday afternoon, Smelley was the recipient of some striking generosity. At one point, a neighbor, who asked that his name not be published, came by to tell him that he had a surprise for his 13-year-old son, Travis: a new drum set, to replace the one that perished in the fire. Then, the neighbor handed Smelley a shoebox containing some of the ceramics that Smelley’s children had created in elementary school. The neighbor had gone into the house and taken them off the wall — while the roof was burning.
Clearly touched, Smelley shook the man’s hand, then gave him a hug.
Smelley was especially grateful on behalf of his son, who at age 13 has lost his sister and now his home, and almost lost his mother to breast cancer last year. (Smelley said the cancer is in remission and his wife has been given a clean bill of health.)
After the neighbor left, a flock of cross-country athletes stopped by to console Smelley. It wasn’t the first time they’d done so: He thanked them for visiting him the night before, and recalled how nice it was to just sit with all of them.
“There was nothing to say, just sit,” he explained.
Smelley assured the students that he was going to be OK, marveling at the generosity of the community, and adding that after all his family has been through, the loss of the house “doesn’t feel devastating. Just sad.”
On the Riviera a few miles away, Doug Crawford was also coming to grips with the loss of his home, in the 1100 block of Las Alturas Road.
“Our house is 12 inches high,” said Crawford, spokesman for the Navy League of Santa Barbara, which his wife, Karen, serves as president. “There was no structure left whatsoever — nothing.”
Crawford said he was amazed at the cooperation of neighbors, who knocked on one another’s doors to make sure everyone would get out safely.
He attributed the smooth evacuation to a neighborhood drill performed in May.
Crawford said he couldn’t believe how fast the fire traveled.
Around 6 p.m. — shortly after the fire started — a friend called to ask him how he was doing.
“We went outside, there was no fire,” he said. “By 7 o’clock it was like we were inside a furnace.”
Crawford said the time he and his wife spent grabbing valuables was harried and surreal.
“You end up taking some crazy stuff,” he said. “I wondered if I was going to have to defend my property — I got my rifle and some ammunition.”
He added, wryly, “The good news is there was no need to defend my property.”
During the evacuation, Crawford said the fire began to feel dangerously close, with large embers falling from the bright-orange sky and the sound of trees popping in the flames.
“My lungs burned for 24 hours afterward,” he said. “That’s how bad the smoke was.”
Crawford said he has been moved by the generosity of the community.
He and his wife were among the victims invited to attend a local briefing by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“The mayor and City Council members were there; they all hugged us and embraced us,” he said. “They promised the rebuilding transition process would be accelerated for us, and the bureaucracy would be minimized.”
What’s more, on Monday morning, one of the members of his church, El Montecito Presbyterian, handed him and his wife the keys to a three-bedroom condo.
“We just live in an awesome community,” he said. “It feels like jumping off a cliff, with the shock and awe of the fire, and then seeing the aftermath. What you realize when you go off that cliff is there is like a hang glider of love and support from the community.”