By Brooke Holland
A community meeting Jan. 16 in Santa Barbara served as a stage for emergency responders, county officials and community members to exchange stories of heroism in the aftermath of the prior week’s devastating flooding in Montecito.
Standing on the La Cumbre Junior High School auditorium stage — in front of a couple of hundred residents — Santa Barbara County Fire Department Battalion Chief Matt Farris, a Santa Ynez Valley resident, described the steps taken in preparation of the Jan. 9 storm and his personal experience driving and working during the deadly flash flooding.
Helicopters crews were on standby, the U.S. Coast Guard was on call, and California National Guard units were deployed with high-water vehicles for evacuations before the heavy rains hit the Thomas Fire’s burn area, he said.
“We had a plan,” Farris said. “I spent Monday (Jan. 8) implementing that plan and putting people in place to be the most effective it could be.”
An emergency responder Farris spoke with made eight trips, carrying 30 people each time to safety from the disastrous debris flows and mud that devastated parts of Montecito.
“It shows the number of people that had to evacuate,” Farris said.
Farris woke up around 3 a.m. on Jan. 9 and drove southbound. He had been sleeping inside his vehicle at the incident command headquarters at Earl Warren Showgrounds.
Before he arrived at the Olive Mill Road exit in Montecito, Farris said, he drove into “deep water.”
“I called our dispatch center to have the freeway shut down at that point — I continued and was talking to the chief on the phone — and saw a giant flash in the air,” Farris said.
He thought it was lightning.
“That flash turned out to be the homes on fire,” Farris said. “I could still see the glow.”
On Jan. 9, there was a report of a large natural gas fire in the area of El Bosque Road, and a report of a natural gas explosion and structure fire on Via Mañana.
“I ordered more equipment and deployed all resources,” Farris said.
He continued traveling toward Carpinteria and pulled over to make another phone call.
“I was hitting deep water at every low spot on the freeway,” he said.
Debris flows were barreling down the hillsides when he was traveling north on Highway 101.
“I don’t know how I made it through that,” Farris recalled. “It was a miracle. I continued on my way. My car was totaled, but somehow I was able to drive.”
Farris headed to East Valley Road in his mud-covered vehicle and parked along Highway 192 at San Ysidro Road.
At that time, it was pouring rain outside.
“I opened up the back of my car and ran the incident from that location,” Farris said. “That’s just one story. There are many more stories and more heroic actions taken by all people who have been out there. Many rescues took place.”
The attendees, some teary-eyed, sat silently while Farris spoke.
“A person had no clothing, and she (a firefighter) took the clothing off her back and gave it to someone,” Farris said. “She was standing in the mud with no clothes on to protect this person. We flew her out with several other people and the Coast Guard, in the pouring rain.”
“We spent the first week in rescue mode — and for firefighters, it’s hard to transition from that,” Farris said. “Rescue mode to recovery mode is something firefighters are not equipped to do, but that’s something we are doing because we are all a community. We want to see closure just like everyone.”
His remarks received loud applause from community members.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown described working under hard conditions during the storm.
“We have slogged through the mud, rescued the living, cared for the dead and assisted those in need,” he said.
Anthony Stornetta with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department said helicopters were first dispatched early on Jan. 9.
Visibility at the time was difficult though heavy rain and fog.
“Under any other state, those helicopters wouldn’t have been launched,” Stornetta said. “Due to the number of rescues and people that were trapped, we launched the helicopters.”
Stornetta said the helicopter crews had to use night-vision goggles.
“When they landed on Cottage Hospital, the fog rolled in, and they couldn’t get off the pad,” Stornetta said. “As soon as the fog cleared, they dropped under the clouds and took off again. This is unrealistic. We usually don’t do missions like this.”
Ten helicopters responded from the Ventura County Fire Department, Santa Barbara County, the U.S. Coast Guard, and five National Guard Blackhawks.
Eighteen hoist rescues were conducted a few hours after the storm hit, Stornetta said.
“It was dynamic and dangerous,” he said. “We picked people out of waterways, off rooftops, and anywhere. We grabbed them.”
Within the first 14 hours, crews conducted 102 air rescues and transported patients to the Santa Barbara Airport, where the injured were met by an ambulance.
One helicopter had water enter from the top of the aircraft, Stornetta said.
“During that time, they lost all communication in the cockpit, and they continued to fly,” Stornetta said. “They kept going with more hoist rescues and smelled burning — that was time to set it down.”
The Santa Barbara County air unit helicopter made an emergency landing at the Birnam Wood Golf Club.
“The status of that helicopter is unknown, but I think it will be down for some time,” Stornetta said.
Stornetta said a pilot, who has 11 years experience in the Navy and spent nine years in the Coast Guard, described the air rescue mission as “the most difficult situation he has ever flown” and “he’s one of our most experienced pilots.”
Stornetta said rescue crews are asking about updates on the progress of those they saved from rushing waters and thick mud.
“There’s a huge emotional attachment, and all they want to know if their patients made it,” Stornetta. “This has been an emotional time.”
The meeting also provided the following information:
- FEMA expanded the recently approved Presidential Major Disaster Declaration in the areas affected by the December 2017 wildfires to include damage incurred from flooding and mud and debris flows.
- Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools Susan Salcido said Jan. 16 marked the first day that all 20 school districts in the county were open to serve students since the Thomas Fire in December and the flash flooding event.
- No reports of thefts or looting had been made to the Sheriff’s Office, according to Sheriff Bill Brown.
- County officials stressed the importance of keep roadways clear due to heavy equipment and excessive vehicle activity working to remove mud and water from Montecito to disposal sites.
- The Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management is working on plans in case another powerful storm prompts future evacuations.
- Anyone interested in volunteering can visit www.redcross.org/volunteers.
- CHP Capt. Cindy Pontes said those looking for their abandoned vehicles on Highway 101 or county roadways can call 805-477-4174, with their license plate number or vehicle identification available.