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Gone in a flash: Goleta family's home of 25 years is lost to fire

Gone in a flash: Goleta family's home of 25 years is lost to fire
John Givens douses himself with water to get relief from the heat as he digs through the rubble of his home, which was destroyed by the Holiday fire in Goleta. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Goleta residents Carrie Givens, 63, and her husband, John, 67, lost their home of 25 years. Their four-bedroom, split-level house was built into a hillside overlooking their 10-acre organic vegetable farm.

When she heard the wind pick up Friday night, Givens said she looked out and saw the fire outside.

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“The way the winds were, as soon as we saw it started, I said, ‘We gotta get out of here,’ ” she said.

She grabbed a change of clothes, her passport, computer, camera and a pastel painting she had started. The couple also packed up their five cats and spent the night at a residence on one of their other properties.

Givens said she couldn’t save the finished paintings and expensive pastels in her art studio, her late mother’s ashes or the baby photos of her three children.

“That makes me sick,” she said.

As she lay down to sleep Friday night, Givens said she couldn’t stop thinking about her house. She envisioned the front door, the steps that opened up to their large living room with its high ceiling. She imagined sleeping in her own bed, on her own pillow.

When she and John returned to the house at 7 a.m. Saturday, it was all gone.

Their house was one of several burned when the fast-moving Holiday fire swept through the hills above Goleta on Friday night. The fire burned about 20 structures and forced the evacuations of about 2,000 people.

Despite living in an area plagued by fires, Givens said she never imagined she’d end up the victim of one. There were a couple of close calls, most recently the Gap fire in 2008.

On the agenda Saturday was calling the family’s insurance company and canceling a flight the next day to Mexico. Examining the loss, Givens noted that some of her mother’s garden gnomes had survived, as well as a small garden fountain and a colorful flowerpot.

“I kind of fell apart when I first walked up to it,” she said, “but what can you do? We’re all OK. We’ll be all right eventually.”

On Saturday morning, Eric Durtschi, 42, surveyed the charred remains of his rented hilltop home on Cuesta Verde in Goleta. He bent down and picked up the metal bones of three vintage rifles.

“This one’s the 1873 Winchester,” he said, studying one of them before turning to another. “This is my grandfather’s right here.”

Durtschi, his wife and their six children just moved into the house just two weeks ago. They were still unpacking when a blaze forced them out Friday night and destroyed their home by morning. Durtschi said he didn’t yet have rental insurance.

The family had relocated from Utah after the school year ended to be near Durtschi’s business partner in their chocolate company. On Friday, two friends from Utah and their three children were visiting for the weekend when Durtschi’s daughter smelled smoke shortly before 9 p.m.

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Durtschi walked outside and saw smoke everywhere. He told his wife to get the kids ready to leave, hopped in his truck and saw a wall of flames racing down the road toward them.

He called his wife at 8:49 p.m., told her to pack the essentials and to leave immediately. Meanwhile, he and his friend stayed behind to grab his father’s guitar and his journals, photographs and a hard drive.

“When we came out, there were fist-sized embers falling all over the place,” he said.

Among some of the treasured items lost in the fire were an 8-foot-wide painting of a Nativity scene that Durtschi had given his wife, wood carvings her father had made, his motorcycle and their children’s bicycles.

The family stayed the night with friends in town, but Durtschi couldn’t sleep. He woke at 5 a.m. to inspect the remains of their belongings and to compose himself before going to Santa Barbara to pick up his two oldest sons, who had been with a church youth group all week and didn’t know their home was gone.

“I need to come up with a plan and be strong so the kids aren’t more scared than they already are,” he said. “Hopefully people can learn. I learned a lot last night — I had no idea the flames could go that fast.”

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