Tuesday, October 16 , 2018, 12:19 am | Fair 56º


Susan Miles Gulbransen: Two Evacuations, Two Different Decisions

Why did most of Montecito evacuate for the Thomas Fire, largest in California recorded history, yet approximately 80 percent did not leave when warned of the 200-year debris mudslide? Like much in life, the situation was not easy, and we were among those staying.

As the Thomas Fire zoomed toward Montecito in early December, we were concerned but focused on the upcoming holidays — presents, decorations, parties, time with friends. Warmish weather made walks a pleasure through semi-rural neighborhoods up into the Santa Ynez Mountains loaded with foliage, view-spectacular trails and a sense of what they must have looked like for thousands of years.

Meanwhile, thick smoke was turning the sky darker while increasing winds drove the wildfire closer.

When the phone rang at 6 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 10, husband Gary and I took the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department’s mandatory evacuation order seriously, gathered up valuables and packed our suitcases for three to four days, figuring the fire would have moved on by then.

As a Santa Barbara kid, the dread of wildfires gave me no pause. We were out of the house within two hours, stunned at how our day was upended but figured we could return soon.

Not so soon after all. The fire moved past, but evacuation orders weren’t lifted for 12 days.

Planning ahead for vacations lets you know where you’re going, what climate to expect and when you’ll return. Not so evacuating. You pack in a rush; don’t know where you will end up; or what weather to expect. Above all, when can you return — three days? Three weeks? Return at all? Life gets pulled apart and hectic.

Returning home before Christmas was the best present. We cleaned up ash and slipped back into normal life. Or thought it would be normal.

Good news — no lives lost and only a few houses burned. Still, it hurt to look up to the bare mountains without a trace of sage green, only gray-brown cover everywhere. I wished for rain.

One week after New Year’s Day, Jan. 8, rain was due. Out came another mandatory evacuation notice (for the same areas as fire zones) due to potential flooding problems made worse by burn-damaged hillsides and mountains. The rain would be hard and results harsher, but otherwise as expected.

Leave our house again? After all we’d been through? Was it really necessary? Symptomatic questions of “evacuation fatigue.” Three sources of information caught our attention.

A disastrous 1969 flash flood hit nearby Romero Creek nine years before we moved to Featherhill Road. It destroyed one house and damaged others along the creek. Our house was unaffected.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt the creek, assuring everyone it would withstand a 100-year level of flooding.

Flood prediction maps did not designate our house in the flood zone.

We decided to stay, joining many neighbors in the mandatory evacuation zone. Our generator and water well for our small avocado orchard encouraged the decision.

A Search & Rescue Team volunteer came by Monday afternoon notifying us to leave. Gary explained our thinking. The man said, “Just make sure you have enough food for breakfast.” We did.

That night, rain hit the roof hard, typical of a strong storm. Most utilities went out, not uncommon in the area. Experience told us that they would come back any hour.

That morning the sun was shining, our yard looked fresher and things appeared normal. I dressed and headed down the driveway for a breakfast meeting. Then I got to the street filled with debris. It stopped my breath. Not familiar. No driving on. Nothing was normal.

Dressed in boots and old clothes, we walked the neighborhood to see what had happened. The houses appeared untouched, but streets and parts of yards looked like rugged, craggy bottoms of creek beds built up with debris flow, a term I never grasped until that morning.

They were awash in mud, rocks if not boulders, tree limbs, garbage bins, pieces of buildings, CDs ... The list goes on.

In the middle of Romero Canyon Road lay the red/green roof top of a Lincoln Logs set. My heart plunged for the child who played with it.

Other people were out walking to find out what was happening. Without easy access to news, we stopped to chat, share what we knew or the horrors around us, including that people had died and houses were destroyed.

We also found out more about each other, our dogs and where we lived.

Along Romero Creek, four houses were swamped with mud and debris so thick we couldn’t walk on.

Friends in an undamaged creekside house invited us to overlook the creek. Not the same. The disastrous storm had made it wider, bare and cleaned of foliage, including trees.

Next door, the mudflow ripped through the backyard, leaving no hint of its swimming pool, and slammed into the house, destroying it. Apparently the owner awakened about 3:30 a.m. with mud pouring around his bed. He jumped out, ran from the house and down the street to a neighbor’s for protection.

Back home, we had no electricity, no water, no Internet. Our lifestyle was stepped back decades. Helicopters flew back and forth, one time stopping over us for about three minutes. Occasionally they would drop down to rescue people.

Nighttime came; extreme darkness surrounded us. Our saving grace was an old Coleman lantern. After a cold dinner, we played Scrabble. Gary beat me by 20 points!

The next day, we had to find a way out. Walking that afternoon, we happened upon a California Highway Patrol officer. He invited us to join him escorting people out in 20 minutes. We tore back home, jammed everything in the car and raced back to drive out East Valley Road (Highway 192).

Then we learned about 23 deaths (two still missing), more than 100 houses destroyed and 300 damaged. Passing San Ysidro Creek, familiar houses, roads and driveways had been violently crushed by the debris flow, creating large topographical upheavals. My brain became swollen trying to absorb the disasters.

Once out of Montecito, when could we return? Traumatic experiences emphasize how insecure life is. Sure, we all know that, but sometimes it takes a moment’s, or five moments, change to bring it home.

Ordinarily heavy rain is .30 inches or more per hour. This time it was a half-inch in five minutes. That and badly burned mountainsides produced a 200-year storm debris mudslide. Powerful understates it.

Two weeks later, workers cleaning out the huge Romero Creek debris basin came across a Southern California Edison road-grader tractor. The heavy machine (one worker guessed 20 tons) had been left sitting high in the mountains during the Thomas Fire. The power of debris flow brought the tractor hundreds of feet downhill, and buried it.

Nearly all of the deaths — 19 — and a large number of destroyed houses were located in the voluntary evacuation zone below East Valley Road, not the mandatory evacuation zone. Had we evacuated, we would have gone to friends’ house in that area — more nightmare country.

Hindsight with 20/20 vision tells me we made the wrong decision to stay. On Jan. 8, we only had foresight with 20/200 (blind) available.

Our lives and Montecito will not be the same. Losses overwhelm everyone, especially several friends who lost family, friends and houses. How long will my heart ache for them?

Now we must find the new normal and recreate our community. Life’s main thread is hope. May it, along with humility and gratitude, help move us forward.

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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