Hundreds of Santa Barbara residents fleeing the Jesusita Fire sought refuge on campus this weekend.
The American Red Cross transformed the Recreation Center’s Multi-Activity Center into a shelter on Thursday after thousands of people in the county received mandatory evacuation orders. Volunteers converted the skating rink in the MAC into a temporary living center, filling the space with hundreds of cots for a flood of evacuees displaced by the fire. Supplies – including hot meals, bottled water, snacks, televisions, cell phones and laptops – were also provided for evacuees.
According to Sarah McKittrick, a Red Cross volunteer shelter manager, the MAC housed roughly 600 people on Thursday and Friday night. She also noted that over 5,000 meals had been distributed throughout the weekend.
By Saturday night, after many evacuation orders were lifted, only 43 people remained in the MAC. Though demand for the shelter had fallen dramatically over the weekend, McKittrick said the shelter would remain open as long as people were displaced.
“We will remain open until the need is gone.” McKittrick said.
For many, the need for emergency shelter was far from temporary. Judy Grigsby, a Santa Barbara resident, fled her home last Wednesday after receiving evacuation orders.
“We were actually driving through flames trying to get out the driveway,” Grigsby said.
By the next day, Grigsby learned from a neighbor that her home had burned to the ground.
“Our neighbor works for Edison Company, so they let him drive up in his truck [to check on our house],” Grigsby said. “The next day, our next-door neighbors came to visit us in the shelter, and so we had a good hugging fest.”
Ricardo Blancas and Kristy Hestekin were two of the hundreds that sought emergency shelter at the MAC. Blancas and Hestekin said they barely escaped the fire on Wednesday after their truck failed to start. According to Blancas, the two fled their home to the sound of explosions as nearby gas tanks burst.
“Luckily we got my dad’s truck started,” Blancas said. “It really seemed like a war was going on… All the ash was just right on top of us.”
In addition to food and shelter, evacuees at the MAC received a visit from California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger Saturday morning. The governor inspected accommodations and spoke with evacuees, noting he was glad to see they were well taken care of.
“They’re getting their water, they’re getting their coffees, they’re getting their food, they’re getting their shelters, they’ve playgrounds here, they’ve everything here,” Schwarzenegger said. “People feel really comfortable. And so, the important thing is to let them know that we the state are on top of the situation, and that I really care and I feel bad about the damages caused to properties, and they have to be evacuated.”
Schwarzenegger also spoke to Herman Redfern, an evacuee whose mobile home was located deep in the burn area. Redfern, who did not know if his home had burned, told the governor he was glad to see him as he was desperately needed.
“I told him if we ever need the Terminator, we need him now,” Redfern said. “[Schwarzenegger] laughed and said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’m gonna do everything I can.'”
While the MAC was open to evacuees from the general public, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Dept. also opened a shelter for evacuees who required special medical attention in the UCSB Events Center. Medical shelters, as opposed to shelters for the general population, are designed to care for people with sensitive conditions.
According to Jan Koegler, a Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program administrator, the Jesusita Fire prompted the first medical shelter ever needed in Santa Barbara County.
“This is the first time we’ve ever actually had to set up a public health department shelter,” Koegler said. “The Red Cross always has a responsibility to set up general population shelters, but they can’t treat serious medical conditions – that’s when we come in.”
About 36 people stayed in the medical shelter throughout the weekend until it closed Sunday morning.
Meanwhile, the RecCen will reopen to students at 3 p.m. tomorrow, according to supervisors.