It happened here, not somewhere else. This was the shocking thing about Montecito’s tragedy. It’s easy to watch disasters unfolding elsewhere and you think, “Oh, those poor people”. We’ve lived in Montecito for 40 years so there isn’t a lot I haven’t seen on our South Coast. There have been fires and deluges and floods and wind, but no one was expecting these twin disasters.
When the Thomas fire started on December 4, we, like many of you, thought we were safe on the South Coast, but on December 9 it crossed over the county line. By the 10th it was threatening Carpinteria. My son, wife, baby, and dog had to evacuate Carpinteria and moved in with us. But the fire kept pushing up the coast. The air, thick with smoke; everyone wearing masks. After four nights with us, son and family fled to the clean air of Pismo Beach.
But we still didn’t think it would hit Montecito. It all depended on the wind.
The County warned of strong winds in Montecito for Friday night and Saturday morning (the 16th). I was taking no chances and that night I packed the cars with as much stuff as I could (we had a grab & go list). We still felt pretty safe. Fire crews were stationed everywhere.
On Saturday morning at 7:00 AM the wind hit. Swirling ash and smoke and 40-50 mph wind. Within 10 minutes the entire face of Montecito Peak was ablaze. Two firefighters came to our door to check to make sure we were leaving. We left.
Fortunately for us they had just let people back in to Carpinteria and we sought refuge with our son who had just gotten back in. By Monday the danger passed and we came home. Thanks to the massive influx of firefighters, engines, and aircraft Montecito was saved. Some homes were tragically lost but the town was saved. It took us four days to clean our home and property of smoke, ash, and dust, but we were happy and Christmas was coming. There was more than enough to celebrate.
Everything was fine until the early morning of January 9th.
We knew there were flash flood warnings. We also knew our home was not close to any creek or flood plain and we stayed as did most Montecito residents. Then we awakened with the deluge at 3:30 AM. A transformer in my neighborhood blew up, lines were arcing. The power went out. And then there was this crazy orange glow in the sky. A fire in the middle of a rainstorm? It didn’t make sense; the Thomas fire was over.
My wife said “Listen.” We live near Hot Springs Road and we could hear this deep rumbling coming from Montecito Creek. We instantly knew that the creek was flooding but we had no idea what was happening. No power, no Internet, no TV, no phone reception. Nothing. We did not know that it wiped out homes and lives from Parra Grande down to the bottom of Olive Mill Road in just a few minutes.
The response by emergency personnel was massive. By morning when I walked over to Hot Springs, cops were everywhere blocking off streets. First responders had been working night and day to rescue survivors and search for the missing. Power poles had been knocked down as far as I could see. They wouldn’t let me walk down to the Olive Mill/Hot Springs intersection to see what was happening. Almost all roads were closed. We couldn’t get in or out. Stuck. Most folks in Montecito were in the same situation.
We made the best of it. We cooked on our little gas fireplace in the kitchen (we have an electric stove). On Wednesday I walked until I got a signal on my iPhone and downloaded email and got news. It was shocking. There were many deaths. Hundreds of homes were destroyed or damaged. The landscape was torn. The freeway was closed. The train was blocked.
On Thursday we were allowed to leave and we packed up, took the cat, and headed for a hotel in Santa Barbara. Eventually we were able to take the train (with cat) to Carpinteria and stayed with our son. We were out of our home for two weeks. But we’re back.
I love Montecito. I love the South Coast. But Montecito has been my home for 40 years and has become a part of me. And the tragedies we survived make me appreciate why that was.
I have a lot of people to thank:
- From the fire to the flood, the County’s emergency response system was fabulous. The organization and planning paid off. A massive influx of agencies, personnel, and equipment responded quickly and effectively. Many homes and lives were saved. The repair is underway. Thank you.
- The first responders to fire and flood were doing what they like to say is just their job, but their expertise, dedication, and hard work was impressive and effective. Thank you.
- The response of the utility companies was also impressive. While we can gripe about services, the fact remains that in a situation where there was extensive damage to the infrastructure, they put a lot of personnel on the job and got services back up quickly. Thank you.
- The cops had a tough job, but the local sheriffs and police on loan were professional and polite. Thank you. CHP—you might want to work harder on community relations.
- Our local news staff at KEYT were superb. It seemed like John Palminteri was everywhere doing his usual wonderful reporting. That they were able to assemble an almost 24/7 crew to keep us informed was an impressive public service. Thank you.
- My family remained strong and we got and gave each other much needed support. Stress levels were high but we got through it. Thank you.
- People were nice wherever we went, especially when they learned we were evacuees. Hotels, restaurants, stores, our friends who were also stranded, all made us feel welcomed and supported. Friends, relatives, and old acquaintances that I knew or hadn’t seen for years, all around the country, wished us well. Thank you.
Montecito has a long road ahead. Most people on the outside have no idea as to the extent of destruction and damage that Montecito suffered. It will take a couple years to crawl out of the mud and boulders much less start to rebuild. The loss of family and friends is a more difficult thing to repair.
Be kind. Be tolerant. Be patient. Be thankful. We’ll come back.