On the morning of Jan. 9, a team of seven Montecito Fire Protection District firefighters, led by indomitable Division Group Supervisor Maeve Juarez, worked selflessly to help rescue and evacuate hundreds of victims of the Montecito flooding disaster.
These seven heroes were isolated by structural damage caused by the debris flows that inundated the roads and bridges of Montecito.
For 16 hours, they worked feverishly to save victims of fires and flood, suppress the fires that destroyed four homes, rescue flood victims, and tend to the injured.
It wasn’t until 8 p.m. on Tuesday evening that ground relief crews were able to penetrate barriers caused by the flooding and reach the team of seven firefighters at their makeshift fire station at Birnam Wood Golf Club.
By then, more than 100 victims and their pets had been rescued and evacuated from the flood zones, thanks to the coordinated efforts this Montecito Fire team, the U.S. Coast Guard, Santa Barbara County sheriff’s personnel, and Ventura County and U.S. military Black Hawk helicopters.
The Urban Hikers had the opportunity to sit down with three Montecito firefighters who were part of the division stationed at Birnam Wood.
Juarez, the division group supervisor for this incident, had 18 years experience with the U.S. Forest Service, where she rose to the rank of battalion chief. She has been with Montecito Fire for 18 months as a wildland fire specialist, and was part of the team that developed the plan for fighting the Thomas Fire.
She is a married mother of three children.
Daniel Arnold, a 2003 graduate of Westmont College, is an engineer at the Montecito Fire Protection District. He is also married and the father of two young children.
Robert Galbraith was born and raised in Santa Barbara, and is a firefighter/paramedic with Montecito Fire. He is married and has three young daughters.
Other members of the team were Capt. Shaun Davis, Engineer Eric Klemowitz. and firefighters Kevin French and Mike Elliot.
The team of seven, which was utilizing a make-shift headquarters at Birnam Wood, were part of a complex system of emergency personnel and first responders that included all of the Montecito department, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the county’s Office of Emergency Services, the Santa Barbara City Fire Department, the Carpinteria/ Summerland Fire Protection District, CalFire, the Sheriff’s Department, the Santa Barbara Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, the California National Guard, the Coast Guard and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation prison crews.
Disaster response teams were organized in a military-type command structure, and were placed under the control of Incident Command.
All of these first responders were pre-positioned and ready by Monday night. The agencies without local stations were assembled at Earl Warren Showgrounds, the location of the unified Incident Command headquarters.
In developing its flood plan, Montecito Fire divided the area into three divisions so firefighters would be positioned on high ground within the vicinity of each of the various creeks running through the community.
As it turned out, this strategic decision was a wise one. The massive mudflows from the numerous creeks wound up isolating these three divisions from each other.
Two of the divisions were isolated from the outside world for most of the first day, making supplies and resources unavailable. It from the Birnam Wood headquarters that Juarez and her team operated to rescue and evacuate nearly 100 residents between Romero Canyon/Sheffield Road and San Ysidro Creek.
About 30 minutes before the deluge, Juarez left her post at Birnam Wood to patrol her area, looking for possible trouble spots. The predicted rain had not yet materialized, but weather information was showing it was on its way.
Heading up Park Lane, Juarez was on her way to check the bridge on East Mountain Drive near the San Ysidro Ranch. As the rain began to fall, she sat in her utility truck, watching and waiting.
Seeing little at that location, her plan was to head east to check on the status of Romero Creek, another possible trouble spot. As she headed east to Park Lane, the rain began falling in sheets. Within an instant, she saw the sky turn an otherworldly bright orange.
Juarez immediately communicated with the rest of her division, reporting her observations and calling in what she believed was a structure fire.
She turned her pickup truck around, heading back to the bridge that she had been parked on only moments earlier. It was then that she noticed the mud, huge boulders, trees, water and debris that were flowing down the roadways.
From the light of the fire, Juarez could see that the road she had been on moments earlier was now impassable. The bridge where she had parked to watch the rain and check the weather update was destroyed, blown out from the mud, water and debris.
Parking her truck, she began to walk in the direction of the massive flames. On the way, Juarez encountered the first victim, a man escaping on foot. He called out to her, “My house is on fire.”
Other residents from Park Hill Lane and Park Lane West were beginning to show up in in their cars and other vehicles, attempting to flee the fire and flood. Despite telling her that he had burns on his hands, the man who had walked out of the flames refused Juarez’s offer of medical assistance and instead left the area with another fleeing resident.
Within minutes, Montecito Fire’s Type 6 vehicle carrying Arnold and Galbraith arrived on scene. The firefighters were dressed in heavy structure-firefighting turnouts, prepared for a structure fire.
Unable to negotiate the last part of East Mountain Drive, they left their vehicle and began making their way through the mud and debris toward the location of the fire. They quickly surveyed the situation and decided to evacuate residents on Via Manana, adjacent to the burning house.
The two men split up to search the houses for occupants.
The first one was unoccupied by humans but a cat was found inside. At the second house, the firefighter discovered a man and a woman who had retreated there to escape the flames in their home.
Galbraith, the firefighter/paramedic, quickly assessed the victims, a couple in their 50s. He saw that the man had visible burns, while the woman complained of severe pain in her lower extremities.
Within minutes, Arnold arrived at the home and assisted with the patients. Together the firefighters made the decision to immediately evacuate the couple to a safer location.
The injured man was able to walk with assistance and carried his dog. The woman had to be carried through the mud and debris field to Juarez’s truck, where she awaited the couple’s arrival.
These victims lived very near the site of a natural gas line. After the 3:45 a.m. rupture and explosion, their two-story home was engulfed in flames.
Jolted out of bed, they made the decision to get out of the burning house as quickly as possible. Fleeing for their lives, the couple jumped from a second floor window with their small dog in their arms.
To further escape the flames they crawled through their backyard, through mud and debris to the safety of their neighbors home, where they were able to take shelter. It was in this home that they were discovered and rescued.
Once their patients were safely in Juarez’s care, Arnold and Galbraith returned to Via Manana to continue searching and fight the fires. Failing to locate any other residents, they turned their attention to preventing the spread of the house fires, which by then involved four homes.
The firefighters felt the greatest risk was to the remaining houses on the west side of Via Manana. Using water from garden hoses, the firefighters were able to extinguish the embers that had landed on the houses while they awaited help from other engines.
However, flooding on roads and bridges had made outside access to the burning homes impossible, and other responders could not get to the scene.
Ultimately, four homes burned after the explosion and structure fires.
Meanwhile, the couple had taken refuge in Juarez’s truck, and she was attending to their needs. The woman, who had lost her clothing during her escape from her burning home, was cold and in need of protection.
Without any alternative, Juarez provided the woman with the only clothing available, the clothes on her back. Juarez gave the woman her shirt, sweatshirt and pants, and changed into her firefighting gear.
Because the roadways were blocked by the debris flow, fallen trees and downed wires, a decision was made to request an evacuation by air. Juarez directed the Coast Guard to use a nearby open lot at the corner of East Mountain Drive and Park Lane as the landing spot for their helicopter.
Luckily, this location, known as Drop Point 53, had been used during the Thomas Fire and was known to be a good landing location.
While they waited for their air rescue, the couple and their dog rested in Juarez’s care. As the Coast Guard helicopter arrived, the man walked to the chopper, carrying the family dog.
Due to her injuries, the woman was unable to walk. Juarez carried the woman on her back from the pickup to the waiting helicopter, where she assisted the Coast Guard in getting the patients secured for the flight.
The two patients and their dog were transported to Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital. The man was later transferred to the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks where he is receiving treatment, while the woman remains hospitalized at Cottage Hospital with two broken feet, members of the Montecito Fire team said.
With the immediate crisis of the house fires and the burn victims resolved, Juarez and her team turned 100-percent of their focus to the rescue and evacuation of residents stranded in their homes and elsewhere.
With daybreak, the rescuers continued to search for and assist fleeing and trapped residents.
The area was in utter chaos, resembling a war zone, they said.
It was littered with downed power lines, fallen trees, floating cars, broken gas lines, sheared fire hydrants, massive boulders, mud, large pieces of houses and other debris.
These obstacles, both seen and unseen, caused extremely hazardous conditions for rescuers, who took what precautions they could.
Throughout the day and into the night, the rescuers risked their personal safety again and again to save the lives of others.
Arnold and Galbraith donned floatation gear, entering the creeks to assist stranded victims and to search for trapped survivors. Other rescues involved plucking victims from their rooftops where they had been told to seek refuge.
The seven rescuers of Juarez’s division had began rescue operations before 4 a.m. and continued their work well into the evening before any outside ground resources were able to make their way into that part of Montecito.
Even with the arrival of additional crews, the pressed on in their race against the clock.
Birnam Wood was never intended to be used as an evacuation and safety zone. But with a massive crisis at hand and limited options, Juarez relied on her training, instinct and leadership to formulate a plan and respond to the immediate needs of flood victims.
She knew that the golf course and country club, literally an inland in the middle of a sea of disaster, would be safe and accessible. Out of sheer necessity, Birnam Wood became a critical part of an impromptu solution to the crisis facing Montecito.
Juarez and others involved in the rescue efforts are grateful to Birnam Wood personnel for their assistance and cooperation in permitting their fairways to be used as a landing zones, and for the other services and necessities the club provided during the crisis.
Juarez, Arnold and Galbraith said they never could have imagined the myriad of problems and circumstances that confronted them on Jan. 9 as Montecito was inundated with flooding and mudslides.
As they calmly recounted details of the events of that day, they described efforts to work as a team and aid as many victims as possible.
They talked about their sense of urgency and the need to keep going, without regard for anything other than rescuing survivors.
They expressed their commitment to the people they serve and their sense of responsibility to them. They expressed gratitude, appreciation and the sense of accomplishment.
They showed no fear, asked for nothing and sought no accolades.
These strong, kind, selfless firefighters are true heroes, and we are lucky to have them in our midst.
— Peter Hartmann and Stacey Wright make up the Urban Hikers team. Any opinions expressed are their own.