Homes Lost, Montecito Church Threatened by Fire

Post a Comment » Written on November 14th, 2008     
Filed under: News
SANTA BARBARA, CA (November 14, 2008) – At least six members of Montecito Covenant Church have lost their homes in a massive fire that already has destroyed eight buildings and 14 faculty residences in neighboring Westmont College and threatens the Montecito church as well.

The fast-moving brush fire, driven by 50- to 70-mph winds, erupted Thursday night in the hills above Montecito in Santa Barbara County, burning 1,500 acres, destroying more than 80 homes and forcing evacuations of luxury neighborhoods, reports the Los Angeles Times.

“The speed of the fire has been astounding,” reports Diana Trautwein, associate pastor. “I’ve been in California for a long tine, and I’ve never seen a fire move so fast.” Before the fire, Trautwein had entertained women in her home for meeting. When the last person drove away, it was 5:55 p.m. Less than 10 minutes later she heard about the fire, went outside, and could see it.

A change in the direction of the fire’s movement may bode well for the church, Trautwein says, noting that at present the church is undamaged except for smoke that has filled every room. Power to the building is out.

The destruction of one church member’s home was confirmed early this morning by pastor Don Johnson, who is in Virginia for a family funeral. Trautwein later confirmed that at least six member homes are gone – confirmation of other homes may have to wait as the area is closed off to civilians.

The Montecito church is only a 10-minute walk from the Westmont campus, located just up a hill from the church. An estimated 1,000 students huddled overnight in the school’s gymnasium – it plays a significant role in the school’s emergency plan as the building is constructed entirely of stone.

Montecito youth pastor Lisa Holmlund was able to get through to Westmont to pick up five students so they could stay at her house. She reports that although roads are officially closed, people are being allowed to get through to Westmont to pick up students.

Given the proximity to the campus, church members began removing items from the church buildings, following an emergency plan devised for such emergencies. Members removed computers, other essential equipment, and files. “They’re all in SUVs now,” Johnson reported by telephone this morning.

Trautwein estimates power will remain out for at least the next four days or longer. She says the congregation will meet somewhere for Sunday services, but she doesn’t know the time or location. She will be working through those details this afternoon.

While en route to Virginia on Thursday, Johnson received a call from parishioners asking what they wanted salvaged from the parsonage, noted Covenanter Rick Lindholtz in an email to Covenant News Service this morning. The pastor, who was unaware of the fire, picks up the story, writing this morning in his popular blog Jibstay.

“We were getting on a plane in Detroit to go to the funeral service for my wife’s mother in Richmond, Virginia. We’d been flying all day and my phone rang. What do you want from your house – the area around Montecito Covenant Church and Westmont College is being evacuated right now! Brave friends of ours went in and carried away what they thought was valuable and were forced by officials down the hill. Pray for the fire to abate and for lives to be spared!”

After talking with the Johnsons, members removed the family’s photo albums, art, passports, and other personal effects. “They’re in SUVs, too,” Johnson noted.

Church members are staying connected through Facebook, email and text messages, Johnson says. During the telephone interview this morning, Johnson received a cellphone text message informing him of the member’s destroyed home.

“This fire is just devastating our community,” writes associate pastor Diana Trautwein in an email shortly after midnight. Trautwein and her husband, Dick, evacuated to a son’s home in Carpinteria, a community just south of Montecito. “The fact that no one has been injured or killed is just miraculous,” she adds.

“This is very serious,” notes Curt Peterson, executive minister of the Department of World Mission who at one time served as pastor of the Montecito church and knows the area well. “We always prepared for this kind of crisis, but it is devastating when it actually happens,” he recalls. “One fire like this in 1992 burned 620 homes. Please pray.”

Forecasters are calling for a resumption of Santa Ana winds this morning, the Times reports. Gusts are expected to be weaker than the 70 mph winds that firefighters encountered early in the blaze.

Covenant News Service will publish updates on the situation as information becomes available.

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