Fire Victim's Husband Has a Mission


The husband of a woman killed in last week's fiercely destructive brush fire said Friday he is trying to raise money for a foundation dedicated to teaching the public about fire safety.

Michael Gurka said he hopes the memory of his wife, Andrea Lang Gurka--the only person to die in the Santa Barbara blaze--will live on through the Phoenix Center, a proposed clearinghouse for information on topics ranging from building fire-retardant homes to preventing soil erosion after fires.

Gurka, 36, said he has approached private investors as well as political and religious leaders in the community for support of the center, which he estimates will cost about $100,000 to establish. He intends to discuss plans for the project today during a fire-relief telethon in Santa Barbara.

"I'm trying to find some meaning in this," said Gurka, dark circles of fatigue underlining his eyes. "If we can educate people about fire, then potential human life won't be lost."

Andrea Lang Gurka, 37, died sometime after 6 p.m. on June 27 as she tried to flee the fire roaring toward the Gurkas' house at the bottom of a canyon in the 1700 block of San Marcos Pass Road.

Michael Gurka, an architectural and landscape consultant, said his wife saw the approaching flames and called him at his Montecito office to discuss possible escape routes. Her car had broken down the day before, he said.

The couple decided she should try to get a ride with neighbors, or run out on foot. If that failed they agreed that Andrea Gurka, who had lost mobility from two sprained ankles in the past year, would take shelter in the lowest, coolest area possible--a dry creek bed that ran close to their house.

Michael Gurka said his wife called back within minutes to say she could not reach any neighbors, and he started a desperate drive home through streets clogged with traffic.

By the time he got there, police barricades were up, he said.

He alerted authorities to his wife's predicament. The next day, he searched the ruins of the house and made the rounds of evacuation shelters.

That night, Gurka filed a missing person report. A search team sent by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department found her body at 9:30 a.m. Friday, June 29, in the creek bed about 75 yards from the house, Deputy Tim Gracey said.

"I'm trying not to concentrate on what could have been," Michael Gurka said, closing his eyes and furrowing his forehead. "I've been advised not to blame myself, and I'm working on that now."

The Gurkas met in 1976 in New York City, where they were teachers at a private school. They married two years later and soon moved to California to live closer to nature, Gurka said.

The Santa Barbara home in which they had lived since 1985 is now a pile of charred rubble. Also consumed by the fire were about 1,000 watercolors painted by Andrea Gurka and two dozen unpublished children's books she had written.

Gurka, described by relatives as a kind and energetic woman, grew up in New York, appearing with her mother, actress Doe Lang, on soap operas as a child. She attended the New York High School of Performing Arts and studied at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco as a teen-ager.

But her true love was art, Michael Gurka said. He said she worked as a free-lance illustrator for the New York Times from 1977-78 and for the Los Angeles Times between 1980 and 1982.

More recently, Gurka spent her days painting fanciful watercolors of the wild animals that she fed every day.

Michael Gurka said he and his wife had decided to put their relationship before their careers.

"I really, really loved my wife," he said. "I can't see not structuring my life in dedication for what she stood for."

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