Winfrey, Lowe commiserate as paradise burns
By LYNN ELBER
Montecito is home to the rich and famous, but it's not flashy. It's exclusive, but not haughty. And it's far enough from the sprawl of Los Angeles for comfort — while still close enough for convenience.
People who live in this enclave tucked between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains call it a paradise, one that has long drawn old money and, in recent years, flush celebrities.
Among them are Oprah Winfrey and Rob Lowe, Montecito neighbors who commiserated by phone Friday during the taping of "The Oprah Winfrey Show." While the homes of each had apparently escaped damage as of Friday evening, they talked at length about their friends and neighbors who weren't so lucky.
"It started last night and so far it's been reported that as many as 100 homes have been destroyed," Winfrey said. "A lot of them are friends and neighbors of mine so it's not a good morning for us. ... Some of my friends left their homes with only their dogs last night as I was calling, 'Are you all right? Are you all right?' They said, 'We have the dogs and the kids aren't here so we're OK.'"
At least part of Christopher Lloyd's property was damaged in the fire, the Los Angeles Times reported on its real estate blog. It said a Times reporter witnessed much of the "Back to the Future" actor's eight-acre grounds in ruins, and that he was filming on location in Vancouver but a caretaker had fled the property. Lloyd's agent had no comment Friday when contacted by The Associated Press, and messages left with his manager were not returned.
Winfrey was at a safe distance in Chicago, but Lowe recounted a harrowing experience from the night before as the flames rushed around his home. He said he and his son were watching football when his wife, who was out running errands, alerted him to the approaching blaze with just minutes to spare.
"I'm very lucky," he said. "My house is fine. ... and I believe both of my friends' houses survived."
Residents extolled Montecito's charms Friday, even as the Santa Barbara County community surrendered a swath of its multimillion-dollar homes to a brutal wildfire.
"It's very expensive, very dramatic. It's like the coast of Monte Carlo," with a perfect Mediterranean climate, said longtime real estate agent Bill Vaughan, who pegged the median value of homes — despite the ongoing slump in housing prices — at $2 million.
Lush stands of oak and eucalyptus trees give a wooded accent to Montecito, Vaughan noted, as well as increase the fire danger. About 10,000 people live in the community, he said.
Families from the East Coast with industrial fortunes long ago discovered the area's allure, to be joined later by stars who found a pocket of luxury and seclusion not far from the Los Angeles-based entertainment industry.
Jeff Bridges, Ellen DeGeneres, John Cleese and Michael Douglas are among those who live in the area or once owned homes there. Heather Locklear was driving in the area in September when she was pulled over for driving erratically and arrested. And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver have purchased a 25-acre tract for $4.7 million.
"If I were an autograph hound I'd have a nice thick book," said Debbie Ousey, owner of Tom's Montecito Coffee Shop. But when Lowe or comedian Jonathan Winters or other famous folk stop in, they can be sure they won't be pestered by fans, she said.
Montecito also has a sense of camaraderie and community spirit that belies its wealthy profile, she said.
"It's really pretty special. ... It's not snobby, wealthy people," Ousey said, adding that the town includes longtime residents who don't have big bank accounts or lavish homes. "Everybody supports everybody."
And that would seem to include the rich and famous. Lowe said among the evacuating neighbors he saw was filmmaker Ivan Reitman, director of "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters," and a neighbor with whom he and Winfrey are mutual friends.
"The next door neighbor's house, they were trapped behind their gates and could not get out," Lowe said.
"The next door neighbors the Simmons? You mean the Simmons?," Winfrey asked.
"The Simmons could not get out of their gate. Their daughter was lost on the property and so I had another gentleman and I pried the gates open. ... We tried to comfort the Simmons, and embers were raining down. They were in our hair, they were in our shirts. The wind was easily 70 miles an hour and it was absolutely Armageddon."
Winfrey said had she been at her sprawling estate, she already knew what her priority would've been.
"We already had a plan for getting the dogs out and going to the Four Seasons in West Lake, because they take dogs," she said. "So that would have been the first thing I would have done, look for my dogs."