Fires Cast Veil Over Santa Barbara Weddings

May 11, 2009

The Spanish-style villa where Carrie Beers planned to hold her intimate wedding had winding staircases, terraced gardens and 13 acres of avocado orchards all tucked into a Santa Barbara canyon.

Now the New York bride-to-be is not even sure if her West Coast wedding site is still standing.

Beers and her fiance have been following the Santa Barbara County fire online and waiting for updates from their wedding coordinator in hopes the villa hasn’t turned into a smoldering pile of stucco, along with about 80 other homes ravaged by the 8,700-acre blaze that started May 5.

“At this point I’m trying to stay positive,” said Beers, whose fiance rented the estate from friends for the wedding this summer. “We heard from them yesterday afternoon and everything was OK — then it got dangerously close last night.”

The fire, which was 30 percent contained by late Friday night, displaced thousands of families and upended plans for couples wanting to become families. Many brides are scrambling to relocate elaborately planned weekend weddings that these days can take a year to plan and cost upward of $20,000.

Santa Barbara has long been one of the country’s top wedding destinations with its picturesque wineries, mansions and missions tucked between the Pacific Ocean and Santa Ynez mountains. These features and the sunny weather lends itself to a long wedding season that runs from March to October, say wedding planners.

This stretch of coastline nicknamed the American Riviera has hosted plenty of high-profile events over the years, including Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh’s wedding and John and Jackie Kennedy’s honeymoon. More recently, the weddings of Gwyneth Paltrow, Halle Berry and Jim Carrey were held in this tony city.

Wedding planners and workers at wedding sites said they’ve been busy fielding calls all week from concerned brides and grooms. Chasen Thibeault, with The Inn of the Spanish Garden, said the hotel is now being used as a staging area for the Fire Department, and the courtyard and pool are filled with ash.

Thibeault said he warned a groom who was scheduled to be married Saturday at the hotel that he would be “breathing in ash” and enjoying “beautiful, ominous sunsets.”

While some businesses reported a few customers having second thoughts about a Santa Barbara wedding, venues farther from the fire have seen business pick up.

Patricia Dall’Armi with the Rose Story Farm in nearby Carpenteria, said Friday she had to turn down a bride desperately searching for a place that would hold her 200-person wedding for Saturday. The popular site boasts peacocks strolling through lush grounds blooming with roses and lavender.

“If she had 80 people we could’ve helped her right away but not 200,” Dall’Armi said.

While many future newlyweds remained concerned, Los Angeles resident Eric Rosen said the fires are providing an interesting backdrop for what will likely be a much more memorable occasion. He and his bride-to-be are getting married this weekend at the Firestone Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, which has so far been safe from the fire.

“I’ve just been telling the wedding coordinator that I’m going to move forward with this until the police and fire tell me I can’t go there,” he said.

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