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Stepping up to help Montecito fire victims

November 14, 2008 |  2:44 pm

Coping with the city's most destructive fire in nearly 20 years, Santa Barbara organizations have stepped forward to help in some distinctive ways. Santa Barbara Bank & Trust Co. has announced that it will pay hotel bills tonight through Sunday night for people displaced by the blaze.

"Business is gangbusters -- I'm sorry to tell you," said George Leis, the bank's chief executive. By midday, the bank had booked 130 rooms, many at the waterfront Hotel Mar Monte, and planned to issue dinner vouchers at Los Arroyos restaurants. A team of 10 employees was busy fielding calls at the bank's headquarters in downtown Santa Barbara.

"Some of our customers have lost their homes. Some of our employees have lost their homes," said Leis, who added that the bank would offer its customers emergency lines of credit and cash advances. Direct Relief International, a locally based aid group that works abroad in 59 countries, was handing out face masks from a table shaded by sycamore trees in a Santa Barbara park.

The organization has about 10,000 of the protective masks available and expects another shipment, spokesman Jim Prosser said. For 60 years, he said, it has helped out at a grim string of California disasters, including the 1990 Painted Cave fire that destroyed some 500 Santa Barbara homes.

Leaving with a two-pack of masks, Diane Stevens said she was on her way to help her boss, an executive at a nonprofit called Santa Barbara Beautiful, pack her valuables and keepsakes -- just in case.

As ash wafted through the air, Stevens said she was grateful to live in a place where neighborly gestures during hard times are commonplace.

"That's what we do," she said. "That's what we're about. We're a town."

-- Steve Chawkins