MONTECITO, Calif. – Monday marked 15 years since one of Santa Barbara's most destructive wildfires, the Montecito Tea Fire.
On the night of November 13, 2008, the Tea Fire burned 1,940 acres and destroyed 210 homes within hours.
The fire originated at the Montecito Tea Gardens, also known as Mar Y Cel (meaning Sea and Sky), a historic property spanning approximately 331 acres of Montecito mountainside.
Fueled by high winds and warm weather, hundreds of families had mere minutes to evacuate.
"We were sitting down to dinner and all the phones started ringing, but I told everyone to not answer and just eat dinner," said Pete Dallow, a Santa Barbara resident. "Then our cell phones started ringing, and it was a girl we used as a babysitter from Westmont who had called us because we were unaware the fire was up above us. We lived on East Mountain Drive, and we went outside and could see it above the roofline."
"The evacuation process was a bit chaotic," Dallow added. "We grabbed animals, lots of animals. We got the elementary phone books, and started calling people we knew that lived in the area as we were leaving in our two vehicles, three kids and countless animals."
Dallow and his family, including his daughter who is currently News Channel's digital content director, Lily Dallow, woke up the next morning to learn that their house was gone.
Montecito Fire Chief David Neels remembered the critical need for swift civilian evacuation that night.
"We knew that time was of the essence on getting civilians out of the way of this fast-moving fire," said Neels. "That was one of those evenings where the operational area and all fire departments within the county of Santa Barbara sent resources. It was obvious early on that not one fire department would be able to handle the situation that was in hand."
The fire's origins were traced back to the night prior, when a group of local college students trespassed on the Tea Gardens property and ignited a campfire. The next day, the weather conditions pulled the embers of the campfire into the Tea Gardens' lush vegetation, and the wildfire took off.
"When I first learned about a fire happening, I didn't realize it was at the Tea Gardens," said Kamala Parris, Tea Gardens family property owner. "But when I looked from downtown, it looked like that could be the Tea Gardens, and that was a scary thought."
As the winds picked up, flames quickly engulfed Montecito homes.
"The fire started at the back wall, and I think the wind just took it and carried it straight down to the canyon," explained Parris. "Some of the trees didn't look burned at all. But then you looked down into the canyon, and there was just nothing left. It was a moonscape."
Fire Chief Neels explained how the Tea Fire not only traveled straight through the canyon, but also jumped around and hit properties through the "ember cast."
"The ember cast is one of those things that caused a lot of issues for the fire to continue to march along through the foothills as large trees," said Neels. "A lot of the eucalyptus trees were catching fire. The ember cast was going well beyond where the firefighting resources were engaging on the fire front, trying to put out homes that were burning."
Neels said that the end of the fire was thanks to the winds dying down around 2:00 a.m. that night.
"That ember cast is like a leapfrog way that it just kept getting ahead of our resources. And the only way you can get to that point is, number one, to have the winds die down. And number two, to get additional resources on scene. And both things take time. It takes for a change in the weather and it takes time for the resources to get here in the county," said Neels.
Fire officials said the Tea Fire was a turning point in how community members prepared for evacuations, and heavily encourage everyone in the county to sign up to receive emergency alerts in Santa Barbara County through www.readysbc.org.
Dallow reflected on the aftermath: "It was painful days later when we got up there to see the carnage. And I mean, for example, there was a pile of wires in the middle of the floor. And it took me a while to figure out it was actually what used to be a piano."
The Westmont College campus suffered extensive damage, and 13 people were injured in the fire, in addition to the 210 homes lost.
"The rebuild process was a little more complicated, probably due to the fact that it was a couple hundred homes and a couple hundred homeowners needed to go downtown at the same time, and all get building permits," reflected Dallow. "In the 15 years since, I really spend less and less time thinking about it, but I care less about material things that's for sure."
In the days and weeks following the Tea Fire, the Santa Barbara community continued to donate to the victims who lost their homes and help neighbors rebuild.