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FIRESTORM: SANTA BARBARA COUNTY

Stories of devastation, survival

With 111 homes left in ashes, the news is often not good for residents. But some evacuees find reason to rejoice.

November 16, 2008|Catherine Saillant | Saillant is a Times staff writer.

MONTECITO — Jack and Jan Milton shared a bench Saturday overlooking the smoldering remains of their three-bedroom home with its million-dollar views in the hilly Sycamore Canyon area of Montecito.

The couple had hiked around police barricades to confirm the worst. The devastating Tea wildfire had reduced their cozy, 1,200-square-foot home on Conejo Lane to ashes. A rose garden and fruit trees carefully tended for more than three decades were gone. So was Jack's prized 1960 Corvette.

But for this moment, the Miltons were focusing on what had survived. Against the odds, a large, cedar hope chest owned by Jan's late mother had emerged charred but intact, apparently because of the couple's last-minute decision to drag it outside the house before fleeing.

Jan Milton, 57, lifted several delicate chiffon aprons -- including one in Easter pink and one in holiday red -- once worn by her mother and held them to her waist. Also unscathed were packets of school report cards from Jan Milton's Detroit childhood, carefully preserved by her mother.

"Mom's been gone almost two years, and this was a real special thing that I wanted to save," she said of the chest and its contents. "It's all I have left of her."

Stories of devastation and survival began trickling out across Montecito on Saturday as residents slowly began returning to their homes. Most of the hardest-hit areas remained under evacuation orders, with residents unable to return, as utility companies rushed to repair power lines and firefighters continued putting out hot spots.

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Damage assessment

Montecito and Santa Barbara officials said they had completed a preliminary property assessment of homes destroyed or damaged in the Tea fire, which started just before 6 p.m. Thursday in high Santa Ana-type winds. The list is available at www.countyofSB. org or www.santabarbaraca. gov.

An evacuation order was lifted Saturday for about 2,000 residents, but another 2,500 were still being kept out of neighborhoods where flames had swept across mountains in 70-mph winds the previous two days.

But a hardy few managed to hike around blockades to check on the condition of their residences. With 111 homes destroyed and nine damaged, the news often was not good.

Kelly and Marya Voyson made it through to find that the 1931 home where they had raised two children was incinerated. Picking through the rubble, they found a door knocker and a barrel cactus that Marya recently planted. But not much more.

"It's kind of crazy," Kelly Voyson said. "We've lost everything we own."

Voyson, who works in the construction business, said their house on Conejo Road was insured and that they plan to rebuild.

Many of their neighbors, whose homes also were destroyed, already are talking about replacing what they have lost, Marya Voyson said.

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Difficult decision

The Miltons, who live a block away, said they probably would not rebuild.

Tightened building codes could bring a protracted struggle to replace what they had, the couple said.

Retired from a 30-year career with General Motors, Jack, 62, said he doesn't want the hassle.

Instead, they plan to live in a rental home their daughter owns while they contemplate their next step, he said.

"We'll miss the views and we'll miss our neighbors," he said. "We had good friends across the street, and my fishing buddy lives just up the road."

Both of those houses were destroyed, as well as that of a neighbor who is a firefighter, Jack Milton said.

Shortly before noon Saturday, Amanda Grandfield, 28, became tearful as she approached the rental she calls home.

Houses just a few doors down on Conejo Lane were burned to the ground, but the modest residence she shares with two roommates had survived, as had several other small homes at the end of the lane.

After a quick look around, Grandfield called her roommate, Carina Hessmer, to give her the good news.

"Hey Carina, guess what?" she said into her cellphone. "We have a house. It's still here!"

Firefighters had cut down a bamboo stand next to the house to keep it from igniting.

Grandfield said a third roommate, who was traveling in Thailand, had cleared a third of an acre of brush behind their residence earlier this year.

"He does it religiously every year, and I can thank him for helping to save this home," said Grandfield, a special education teaching assistant.

If the home had been lost, she and her roommates would have had to scramble to find other rental housing -- not an easy thing in high-priced Montecito and nearby Santa Barbara, she said.

"Much of the attention has been on celebrities who live here," Grandfield said.

"But the working class lives here too. We are just so grateful to firefighters for saving our home."

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catherine.saillant @latimes.com

Times staff photographer Genaro Molina contributed to this report.

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