Nonprofits partner to raise funds, clean debris
The families that lived along Refugio Creek didn’t know what to do as they stared at the piles of ashes and debris their homes had become after the Alisal Fire, Fire Safe Council Santa Barbara County President Paul Van Leer told the News-Press.
The Alisal Fire, which ravaged nearly 17,000 acres in mid-October, did not receive a disaster declaration from the State or Federal government. The property owners, most of whom had lost insurance coverage after other wildfires raised carriers’ concerns, didn’t receive the grants or other assistance that come with such disastrous declarations.
So to help, organizations are raising money to clear the families’ properties of the toxic ashes.
“We thought it would be good to get it out of the way and begin the rebuilding process,” Mr. Van Leer said.
The Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade is heading the effort, named the “Alisal Fire Assistance Project.” Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, Fire Safe Council, Community Environmental Council, Heal the Ocean and Habitat for Humanity of Southern Santa Barbara County are partnering with the brigade in what will hopefully rebuild homesteads — and protect the environment.
The debris left behind from the 13 burned structures contains hazardous materials, such as asbestos and “forever chemicals” that are known to not break down under ordinary circumstances and can leach into the land and water.
The affected properties are located beside or above Refugio Creek — a key source of water for residents, both human and animals. Many ranches and residences in Refugio Canyon pull water from a well. If asbestos-filled debris contaminates the creek, the water would become unsafe to drink.
Ben Pitterle, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper’s science and policy director, said the creek is an “important wildlife habitat.” It is a key channel for migratory steelhead trout.
When the project’s leaders saw rain in the forecast, they knew they had to act quickly to keep ash from the creek and ocean. Mr. Pitterle called Heal the Ocean President and Executive Director Hillary Hauser to get funding for the erosion-control materials he needed.
“She didn’t bat an eye,” he said. “She offered to cover the cost of the supplies.”
Santa Barbara Channelkeeper dug trenches around the 13 destroyed structures and layed straw wattles, a tube-like roll of straw that keeps ash and other sediment within its confines.
Today, organizations are making sandbags at Lower Manning Park in Montecito beginning at 8 a.m. to deliver to the Refugio Canyon area. Volunteers are also placing tarps over the debris ahead of predicted rainfall.
Mr. Pitterle calls the effort the “tip of the spear” for what will be a battle to give the property owners a piece of what they lost.
The victims of the wildfire are currently living in various situations: Some are staying with neighbors; others left town, and one is housed in a homeless shelter, Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade Executive Director Abe Powell said.
“These people we’re helping are just barely hanging in there,” he said. “The first step is just to help them clean up.”
Professional contractors will properly dispose of the hazardous materials. The Bucket Brigade estimates the project will cost $147,000. So far, it has raised around $20,000.
If fundraising is successful, Mr. Powell said the brigade hopes to launch a campaign to help families rebuild their homes.
The loved ones of four families launched GoFundMe pages; three have grown stagnant without meeting their goal, including the fundraiser for Jack Rowe.
Mr. Rowe, the stable foreman for Circle Bar B Guest Ranch and Stables, evacuated the ranch’s 55 horses with the help of his autistic son but didn’t have time to grab any of his belongings.
“It’s the only place we ever lived since we’ve been here and you know, the hardest thing is, you can replace things but, when all we escaped with was the clothes on our back, you (have) to start over from true square one,” he told the News-Press in October.
An update on the GoFundMe page indicates that the Rowe family has established a temporary home on the ranch and is doing well.
The area’s residents were recently under an evacuation order during the last storm, and Santa Barbara County proclaimed a state of emergency. The County also proclaimed a local emergency during the fire. Days later, the State declared an emergency for counties recovering from recent fires — excluding Santa Barbara County, which had received a Fire Management Assistance Grant to cover some of the costs of fighting the fire.
“If you ask the people who had their houses burned down, it was a disaster. I don’t think it makes a difference if it was one house or 500,” Mr. Van Leer said.
To donate to the Alisal Fire Assistance Project, go to sbbucketbrigade.org/afap.