Three years ago, a series of mudflows roared down the hillsides of the Santa Ynez mountains and through the small town of Montecito, igniting frantic recovery efforts and paralyzing Santa Barbara County. As the Thomas Fire, which at the time was the largest wildfire in California history, burned for more than a month in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, a quick-moving but powerful winter storm increased the risk of mudflows in the area and prompted evacuation orders.
Those fears were realized in the early morning of January 9, 2018, when mud and debris loosened from burn-scarred areas in the Santa Ynez mountains and plowed through Montecito, a small town of only 8,600. Tearing through homes and streets, the incident was responsible for 23 deaths and the destruction of more than 100 residences.
Mutual aid crews from around California worked to reopen Highway 101 in Santa Barbara as well as city and county roads and pushed forward with urban search and rescue missions. Hundreds were rescued, some via helicopter from the top of their homes.
“It had to have been terrifying for those people in those homes that night, to hear these boulders getting closer and closer and hearing all those trees snapping as they were getting closer,” said Mike Eliason, Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “I can’t imagine the fear in those people as they knew what was coming and they had no escape.”
On January 2, 2018, FEMA declared a Major Disaster for Ventura and Santa Barbara counties due to the Thomas Fire. The Declaration was granted for Public Assistance and Hazard Mitigation and was expanded eight days later to include flooding, mud and debris flows in the designated fire areas, and the USDA Emergency Loan Program for the primary counties of Ventura and Santa Barbara and contiguous counties of Kern, Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. The Declaration was amended to include Individual Assistance for Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties.
Podcast: Amber Anderson, At Home With The Santa Barbara Mudslide
For more on the Montecito mudslides, listen below to the Cal OES All Hazards Podcast with special guest Amber Anderson, a 19-year veteran firefighter including 10 with the Santa Barbara City Fire Department. Anderson reflects on the anniversary and her role before and after the Thomas Fire and mudslides.