By Raiza Giorgi

The Santa Ynez Valley community has rallied around two former residents and their families who have lost everything in the current wildfires burning in California and Oregon. 

“It’s a surreal feeling that one day you are fine and getting ready to paint your home and just a few days later you’re homeless,” said Crystal Van Aacken, former Buellton resident.

“It’s a surreal feeling that one day you are fine and getting ready to paint your home and just a few days later you’re homeless,” said Crystal Van Aacken, former Buellton resident who lost her home in the Creek Fire near Shaver Lake. 

The Creek Fire started the evening of Friday, Sept. 4, and as of press time it has exploded to more than 291,000 acres and is only 36 percent contained, according to CalFire. More than 855 structures from commercial to residential buildings have been destroyed, including the Van Aackens’ home. 

Crystal and Robert Van Aacken woke up in the early hours of Saturday, Sept. 5, choking on smoke. They usually sleep with the windows open on hot days and when daylight broke they headed out with their two children to get a view of where the fire was headed. 

“We watched the smoke plume get larger and closer and I just had this sinking feeling that we needed to prepare for the worst,” Crystal Van Aacken said. 

The Van Aackens returned home to pack as much as they could, taking family mementos and their pets, two dogs, a cat and a ball python. They decided that it would be prudent to start evacuating even before the orders came through and went to stay with Robert’s godparents who lived further down the mountain. 

“The smoke was so thick I was throwing up, it was awful and having this sinking feeling we were leaving home for the last time was terrifying,” she added.

It wasn’t very long before the Van Aacken family moved into their home at Shaver Lake four years ago after living in Buellton. Crystal Van Aacken still works remotely for Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, and her husband, who is a contractor, is temporarily out of work. 

“We wanted to give our kids a different upbringing and we love being in the mountains riding dirt bikes, hiking and playing in the lakes and rivers. We really thought this was our year and actually had a savings,” she added. She added an emphasis on “had.”

Living in a place with a high fire danger, the Van Aackens were diligent about keeping their property clear of overgrown vegetation. 

“Most of our neighbors are also very conscious of this as the forest is so overloaded with dead brush and trees that have needed to be cleared for years,” Crystal Van Aacken said.

The Van Aackens watched on their “Ring” app as the fire drew closer and in the video Crystal posted on her Facebook page, you can hear the roar of the fire and the cracking and popping of trees. You can also see their American flag whip back and forth in the wind just before the video cuts out as the power went out. 

They left Labor Day Monday for Santa Barbara County to stay with Crystal’s father and got an alert from a friend about some random person filming properties in Shaver Lake that burned. She pulled up the video and said her heart sank as the person was filming her home, or the pile of ash and debris that remained. 

Their friends back on the Central Coast, including friends in the Santa Ynez Valley, have rallied to help them get through this time and set up a GoFundMe account. In one day they have already raised more than $13,500 of a $25,000 goal. 

“I am usually the one helping support others and it was incredibly amazing and appreciated they did this,” Crystal Van Aacken said. “It’s hard to accept help because my family has always been hard working and self-reliant, but we are so grateful.” 



Katie Mosebar Duvall, pictured here with her husband Jaime, lost their home in the Echo Mountain Fire in Otis, Ore., in mid-September.
Photo contributed

Katie Mosebar Duvall grew up in Santa Ynez and is the daughter of former California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar. She was known for her athletic abilities in school sports, and even though the Mosebars no longer live in the valley, they have friends here still helping as Duvall and her husband recently lost their home in Otis, Oregon, to a wildfire. 

The Echo Mountain fire started Sept. 7, and Duvall said that she knew the fire was close, but when they went to bed Sept. 8 it was still miles away. There were also rumors it had been contained, she added. 

“We woke up around 1 a.m. to the sirens and police banging on our door telling us to grab what we could and to get out immediately,” she said. “We grabbed photo albums and documents and a few clothes and that is it.” 

Duvall has lived in the small town for several years as a massage therapist and her husband works at an automotive parts store. They live along a river across from a mobile home park. 

“What we were told is that embers from the mobile home park floated over and two homes in our neighborhood were destroyed, including our house,” Duvall said. 

“We are lucky that it was just possessions and not our lives that were taken,” Duvall said. “We are okay and so grateful for all the well wishes and support from our family and friends from all around, including the valley.” 

Duvall’s sister Meghan and brother Matt set up a GoFundMe ( for their sister which has raised more than $6,000 of a $10,000 goal. 

“My sister is the most sincere and giving person and I hope that this can help her get through for awhile until they can figure out what is next,” Matt Mosebar said. 

The Duvalls have signed up with the Red Cross to help them navigate what will happen next. Duvall said she and her husband plan on rebuilding where they are currently because they love their spot and are close to her husband’s family. 

Along with the Duvalls’ home, there were 293 structures destroyed, and 22 damaged and one injury. 

While the Echo Mountain fire remains at 2,552 acres, it is now mostly contained, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.