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Letter 3 - SB Running Community Print E-mail
Written by Administrator   

To all of my friends in the Santa Barbara running community:

Today marks four weeks from the onset of the Tea Fire as well as just about two weeks until Christmas Day. I wanted to thank you all for your kindness, support and outpouring of generosity and share with you a little bit about the past month and what transpired.

 On the day of the fire, I was originally supposed to be in Seattle but had canceled a trip, partly due to my mother’s mid-October emergency surgery in Hartford, CT.  My mother had battled cancer once in 1988 with colon cancer and then again with uterine in November, 1998 just before the California International Marathon (where I ran my personal best of 2:56).  My family was secretly praying that she would make it through all of 2008 without a setback, which was not to happen.  Fortunately, not cancer, but blockages in her intestines from scar tissue and radiation did not clear on their own so she was forced to have an operation and a two week hospital stay right at the time as my father’s business was spiraling out of control from the recent market crashes.  I wasn’t sure which parent I had helped more with my three day stay in the hospital caring for my mom, or allowing my father to deal with his clients.

So to make a long story short, I needed to run.  For me, for more than 25 years, running has been my constant.  I can rely on it most of the time, except for a few occasional setbacks and this year I had two frustrating setbacks: a sprained ankle by falling on black ice in Tahoe early in the year and then  a stress fracture in my femur early in the summer. My last race of the spring was the Santa Ynez Wine Country Half.  I didn’t race again until the Santa Barbara Half Marathon.

Fortunately, on the day of the fire my schedule changed again.  Normally I would be driving my two sons between their soccer practices at Elings and La Colin, but on that day my younger son, Peter, was practicing later than usual and for some reason my son William was home with me so we decided to go on a run up Coyote Road about 4:50. We had our Jack Russell, Aro, with us.  It was so windy that we almost turned around, but I kept persuading William to continue, partly for the dog’s sake, but partly for my own daily dose.  I knew when we got to the top, just a half mile up, that running on Mountain Drive would be easier.  We had agreed to run to the bicycle butt and with the sun sinking lower in the sky we would have just enough time to make it there and back to the house before dark.  At the top we both noticed the fire sign was pointing to high and it was still blowing like crazy - - perfect fire conditions.

I have lived for more than 15 years on Coyote Road.  Wind has kept me awake on countless nights; wind has blown down pine trees on my property; wind has carried my outdoor umbrella to the neighbor’s property.  For years, I have lived in fear of fires.  Because of this fear, I have tried to be prepared.  I have one storage box at one facility on Patterson that has been filled for a couple of years and usually I store my Christmas decorations at this facility along with off-season sports gear, like skis, etc. In the past year, that storage box was filled so I rented a second, almost like an additional insurance policy.  Was it crazy to be spending more than $100 per month on storing preschool art, baby blankets, Legos, letters from college and other miscellaneous things I have yet to delve into?  In recent months, I also organized many of my photos and albums in the front entry way closet.  

William and I were home by about 5:35 and again, I would normally have taken a shower, but I think I was checking e-mail and then the phone rang and it wasn’t until a few days later that I was able to uncover who had actually called to ask if I had seen the fire. One of my dear friends, Ann Fristoe, called to ask if I could see a fire from my backyard. At the time, her son was home doing his homework while she drove to Santa Barbara High to pick up another son from water polo. His line of vision was looking directly at the Tea Gardens. When I looked out my back door, it was as if the fire was right there and I would have ten minutes to pack. My entire mind went blank.  I called to William and called his dad to send him to pick up Peter at soccer practice (luckily we were able to reach him, but would he have time to reach his house just a quarter of a mile up the street from mine).

I had heard that fire would spread exceedingly rapidly, but how rapidly. At that moment in time, I thought I had ten minutes. What could I pack in that amount of time.  We pulled photo boxes and albums from the closets. As I pulled William loaded.  And then I would run to the back to see how quickly the fire was spreading.  The flames were huge.  I knew it was coming right for my house, but after about ten minutes, I felt I had more time to pack.  I don’t recall the order of collecting things for my SUV which was already packed with two school backpacks, one soccer bag and the day’s purchase at Michael’s (including two large canvases) as well as a small suitcase of an assortment of my old journals which I had put in the car before my trip to Connecticut.

I would periodically monitored the progression of the fire out the back patio door.  I was intrigued with the full moon.  I believed in my positive spirit and William told me later that I kept telling him we need to pack, but the house will be fine.  I wanted to believe this for the boys, but my superstitious nature also knew that is the 13th; there was a full moon; and the conditions were ripe for the perfect fire storm. Just days before I had argued with Montecito Water District about the increase in water rates and was frustrated that my water bill was so high, so late in the season.  Just days before the fire, I learned that my system had been set to water for five days so I decided to turn off my water to save money.  The grass was lush and green.  During the fire, William and I spent a few minutes trying to turn on the system and were able to turn on the front sprinklers but not the back (did this have anything to do with saving our neighbor’s property, or were they just lucky?).  Why didn’t I think to at least turn on the two back hoses and drown the lawn while we packed?So packed we did, I have few recollections about making decisions, but we packed the car for 45 minutes all the while the phone rang in my pocket (and as I write I realize that I haven’t seen the shorts that I ran in and packed the car that day – where are they? Where did they go?). I answered calls, but have no memory of whom I spoke to.  William’s father kept calling and finally I had to ignore him to pay attention to what I wanted to take.

We packed at least ten boxes of photos, and another large stack of albums (all of my minor attempts at Creative Memory albums). We packed baseball and soccer trophies; Peter’s first AYSO uniform; Peter’s recent woodshop class and finished project of Homer Simpson, three framed pieces of the boys’ art projects and a recent count of 25 pieces of art from the walls including local artists, and a Whistler lithograph; we packed clothes from each of our closets; some trinkets from table tops including our three baby cups; my box of silver; and a most unusual item a French carving set that we used at the Fristoe’s house on Thanksgiving Day. We also packed two violins, a saxophone and three lap tops.   I had most of my everyday necklaces on a rack in the bathroom which I grabbed and fortunately, most of my jewelry was getting reappraised at Bryant and Sons. I later learned that my jewelry box which contained my bracklets, most of my earrings and an assortment of miscellaneous jewelry was not a fire safe at all.    I decided to leave it behind along with a slew of negatives and all kinds of memories that were later found charred, just ashes. Some pieces of jewelry were recovered, but most were melted together and completely and totally unrecognizable.  Besides the total loss of the house, this was the most devasting moment to have the jewelry box cut open to reveal  black walls and basically an entire 16 x 16 box filled with blackness.

The last two things to get packed were our dog Aro and one of our cats, Einstein.  We left behind three fish in our salt water aquarium and our cat, Midnight.  Midnight was not to be seen, until four days later! Andy and I had always had an evacuation plan. We would meet at the Biltmore. As I turned on the car and took my phone out of my pocket, I called to let him know that we were on our way.  Sometimes now I wish I had gone back one last time, to look around and see what else I could take.  There was absolutely no room left. I am sure I could have found a way to fit Peter’s baseball cards (including his prized Barry Bond card), or Peter’s drum music, or William’s Harry Potter series, or more art, especially my grandmother’s two handpainted silk scarves which were framed ( I have visions of breaking the frames to take the scarves), or my jewelry box, or this, or that…so many things I could have taken, so many things I wished I had taken.

It was 6:45 when we finally left and the fire seemed bigger, but not necessarily closer.  My neighbors were gone with my two hard drives. It was time to go.  It was an eery feeling driving down Coyote Road; it was eerily calm.  At the bottom a policeman was directing traffic away from Sycamore Canyon Road toward Montecito so I had two choices, Stanwood or Sycamore Canyon toward the roundabout, but would that be open.  There was no sign; no people; no cars. I made the choice and prayed again that it would be open.  William was sitting in the back.  I needed to protect him. I just pleaded with the universe to have the concrete barriers open and my wish was granted.  Coast Village was still lit at the time and it took awhile to make it to the Biltmore, but there we were reunited with tears in all of our eyes that we were safe; that we were together. We hugged and watched the smoke fill the sky as the lights went out all over Montecito.
The next morning we were fairly certain that we had lost the house, but without actually seeing it for myself it was hard to believe.  With school closed, we spent the day buying clothes and starting to make inquiries for housing.  After a long and exhausting night and day, I had, had, had to run to the house.  I found a way to park at the bottom of Barker Pass and I ran up Barker Pass to Sycamore Canyon to Coyote Road and there it was GONE, entirely GONE - absolute complete and utter destruction. A neighbor came by and I found another neighbor who drove me back to my car since it was now late and the sun had set.
Everything I had known in my little house was gone.  I had nothing to do but rely on my friends, many of whom have run many miles with me. 

All I can say in the end is that without my running and my running partners, I would have struggled terribly, but you all provided the HOPE that my family and I needed.
From the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU!
Love, Melissa

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