Eric Christiansen lost his home in the Painted Cave Fire.
But out of the ashes from the massive 1990 blaze came a new life.
“Before the fire, I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and drugs,” the 56-year-old former Santa Barbara resident told the News-Press this week by phone from his Burbank office.
“It took several months after the fire to get the calling card of what the fire really meant to me,” said Mr. Christiansen, an Emmy-winning filmmaker who now lives in Santa Clarita. “That’s when I got clean and sober, and that’s when I literally changed my whole life.
“Jan. 13, 1991, is the day I had my last drink,” Mr. Christiansen said. “Without the fire, it would never have happened.”
After the fire, Mr. Christiansen redirected his filmmaking career to focus on trauma victims and how to help them.
He plans to air his latest project, “UnMASKing HOPE,” spelled with that capitalization, possibly as a series, beginning next year on a cable or broadcast network or streaming service.
Mr. Christiansen’s work is timely. Today is both National PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) Awareness Day and the 29th anniversary of the Painted Cave Fire, which burned 5,000 acres in the Santa Ynez Mountains and Santa Barbara.
Later determined to be set by an arsonist, the June 27, 1990, fire started at the intersection of State Route 154 (San Marcos Pass Road) and Painted Cave Road. The blaze went on to destroy more than 400 buildings and killed Andrea Lang Gurka, 37, as she fled from the flames along State Route 154.
Mr. Christiansen, a Long Beach native who graduated in 1981 from San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara, recalled his relief at knowing his mother, the late Patricia Christiansen, had left the lower San Marcos Pass home they shared before the flames. They got a room that night in the Holiday Inn in Goleta.
They watched local TV news coverage that night and learned from a friend the next morning that the fire had destroyed their three-bedroom home, which they were renting. They lost everything and didn’t have renters’ insurance.
“It was one of my favorite homes I had ever lived in,” Mr. Christiansen recalled, but noted the great help given by FEMA and the American Red Cross.
He and his mother moved in with his sister Vickie Christiansen, who was living in Santa Barbara at the time and now resides in Ventura.
Before the fire, Mr. Christiansen, who earned his bachelor’s in live action film/video in 1985 at CalArts in Santa Clarita, was shooting national commercials through a Goleta business.
After the blaze, he turned his attention to helping victims and produced, directed and wrote the 1991 documentary “Faces of the Fire,” which focused on the Painted Cave Fire and its survivors.
Mr. Christiansen said he found inspiration from the stories of families sticking together and overcoming adversity in the face of the Painted Cave Fire.
He said he was glad that he connected with the other survivors of the blaze and saw how their lives changed after they told their story.
One thing Mr. Christiansen observed was how residents went through some denial as the Painted Cave Fire struck.
“In some of these stories, people grabbed their baskets full of bills and invoices and ran out with them instead of photographs,” he said. “There was this denial that this fire was upon us. One person took ice cream.
“We’re not built for this sudden upheaval,” said Mr. Christiansen, who went on to cover survivors of 9/11 and various wars. “We go into this denial stage.”
Mr. Christiansen said he experienced trauma because of the Painted Fire but was never diagnosed with PTSD.
After he moved to Santa Clarita in 2005, he felt the impact of watching TV coverage of other fires.
“I woke up in the middle night, smelling smoke and saying, ‘We have to get the kids out of the house,’ ” Mr. Christiansen recalled.
There was no fire or smoke in the home, and Mr. Christiansen said he has used his personal experience with trauma in discovering the stories of other survivors. “What my films promote is empathy.”
“The guy next to you may have had a very severe trauma, and that’s why he’s acting in a certain way,” Mr. Christiansen said. “As a nation, we need more empathy.”
Mr. Christiansen, who wears many hats as a producer, director, writer, camera operator and editor, showed how others are dealing with trauma in his documentaries “Homecoming: A Vietnam Vets Journey” (2002) and “Searching for Home: Coming Back from War” (2015), both of which aired on PBS. The latter also had a theatrical release.
“My films are based on three pillars: the truth, the healing and the hope,” he said.
“The truth is the incident, the trauma,” Mr. Christiansen said. “The healing is when they (survivors) find out they’re not alone. They run into somebody else and come into a group.”
He explained hope comes as survivors reach the point of helping others who have endured traumas.
Mr. Christiansen incorporated survivors’ stories in “UnMASKing HOPE,” which he expects will air as a series.
He pointed to the hope shown by Sandra Lee, whom he said is an Iraqi veteran with PTSD.
Mr. Christiansen said Ms. Lee drove over a bomb and was sexually assaulted by a superior officer.
“She has an enormous amount of resiliency,” he said.
Mr. Christiansen explained Ms. Lee acts on stage in therapeutic theater that allows her to deal with her past trauma.
Another survivor in “UnMASKing HOPE” is Becky Lazinger, who started working at Morgan Stanley in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2000. Exactly one year later, she was in the tower’s lobby of one of the twin towers when they were hit by two jets hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists.
“The people who were actually there did not know what was going on. It was difficult to decipher,” Mr. Christiansen said. “It was hard for Becky to believe. You drift into this severe denial.
“She ran out of the lobby and miraculously made it back to her apartment after witnessing the horrifying things that happen around her,” the filmmaker said.
Mr. Christiansen said he likes to list resources in his films for trauma survivors to get help.
For example, “Searching for Home: Coming Back from War” lists a phone number for a hotline for veterans to talk to another veteran.
“To me, it’s not responsible to throw something out there without having some kind of resource,” he said
Today, Mr. Christiansen, who celebrated his wedding anniversary to Kate Christiansen Wednesday and has two sons and a daughter ages 17 through 21, explained what he has learned from PTSD survivors.
“It never goes away, but you can arrest the symptoms. With any kind of recovery, you work on it every day.”
For more information, go to www.unmaskinghopethemovie.com.