Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson with Bucket Brigade founder Abe Powell on Saturday during a tour of the Montecito debris flows. Johnson helped out with the clean-up a day ahead of his Santa Barbara Bowl benefit performance. (Jeff Moehlis photo)

On Saturday, the day before his Santa Barbara Bowl benefit concert for our recovering community, Jack Johnson visited the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade, which is literally digging Montecito out of the mud.

And he pitched in to help, arriving early in order to help restore an affected homeowner’s kitchen one shovelful at a time.

Johnson was touring Australia during the Thomas Fire, but his heart was here: “My wife and I were heartbroken to hear about all our friends in Ventura and Ojai. We got back to Hawaii, and that’s when the mudslides began.  It was really hard not to be here.

“This is a place that’s really close to our heart. I grew up in Hawaii, but when I was 18 years old I moved to Santa Barbara. My wife and I lived here for about 10 years.”

Regarding this visit, “It was really nice to come back. It’s been too long, and so we’re really happy to be here today, and just to get to participate a little bit in what these guys have been doing every weekend. They’ve been such heroes.”

After learning about the debris flows, Johnson quickly decided to put together the benefit concert. But he recognizes that this won’t be a typical concert: “It should be pretty emotional. It’s not about us, obviously. It’s about this community, so we’re coming together with as much humility as we can.

“:We’re hoping it’s a healing event for everybody. We also want to have a nice celebration of all the nice work that’s been going on, and just have as much fun as we can given the circumstances.  But it’s going to be really emotional for all of us.”

Johnson said he has a natural instinct to “help out when you can,” but he also gives his wife Kim much of the credit for steering him to use his music career to effect positive change such as his sustainability efforts and benefit concerts like the one at the Bowl: “The catalyst is my wife. She’s a teacher. She used to teach at Dos Pueblos High School for years.

“So with her educational background, as soon as she saw the spotlight on me, I think part of her job she saw was taking that spotlight and turning it away from me to things more important. As soon as we could draw a crowd, it wasn’t even a question we had to say out loud about how we could use this for things more important than us.”

Bucket Brigade founder Abe Powell and co-leader Tom Cole led a small tour group consisting of Jack and Kim, volunteers, and press around different Montecito sites.

For Powell, the Bucket Brigade is more that just shoveling mud: “Having people see that their community actually cares for them, and that they’re not alone when the mountain comes down on you — it’s a really important thing for people to understand about their community.”

And the community response has been immense — more than 2,000 people have volunteered for the Bucket Brigade during the last two months, over half of them women.

Jack Johnson cleans mud off an oak tree in Montecito, finding a stash of acorns in the process.

Jack Johnson cleans mud off an oak tree in Montecito, finding a stash of acorns in the process. (Jeff Moehlis photo)

The model that the Bucket Brigade operates under is quite simple: They ask the homeowner what they need, and then they get it done. Notably, the volunteers referred to the houses that they had worked on by the first names of the owners.

We lost 23 of our neighbors in the mudslides, and hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed. Regarding this human toll, Johnson said, “Any story that I’ve heard about families that lost a member of their family, it’s just too much to even think about. But at the same time, we all have to think about it and make sure that we’re there for all those community members.”

But the tour made it clear that there has also been a heavy toll on Montecito’s trees, and the Bucket Brigade is working very hard to make sure that they survive. And these trees are crucially important for our non-human community members.

Johnson noted, “We were digging out this tree and brushing it off, and all of a sudden we found a big stockpile of acorns.  We took all the mud out and shook them off and put them back in there.  I’m sure some little squirrel’s going to be happy to come back and not find that pile not under the mud.”

After the tour of the Montecito sites, I asked Johnson what he thought of all the destruction that we had just seen: “It’s hard without having a little time to digest it, but it’s overwhelming. These guys have been dealing with it every weekend, and probably every day. I mean, it definitely just reminds you to have a profound respect for nature, and how all too often we’re working against it, you know.

“We’ve just got to make sure with every new construction, with every kind of man-made choice that we have, we’ve got to consider nature, because it’s obviously really, really powerful. My heart goes out to all those families. You see those homes with walls ripped off, and hear the stories that these guys were sharing about some of the families that were luckier than others.

“I’m just still digesting it all. It’s really overwhelming to see.”

He also reiterated his respect for the Bucket Brigade: “These guys are amazing. These guys are heroes.”

You can help to support the efforts of the Bucket Brigade and other aid organizations through Jack Johnson’s website

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, The opinions expressed are his own.

Jack Johnson with a Bucket Brigade crew.

Jack Johnson with a Bucket Brigade crew. (Jeff Moehlis photo)