At about 4 a.m. on Tuesday, Montecito resident Berkeley “Augie” Johnson heard the faint sound of a child crying. It was pitch black. A 10-foot wall of rocky, muddy water had barreled down Olive Mill Road for nearly an hour. Johnson and a team of firefighters who had arrived spread out through the street to search for anyone trapped in the sludge. They waded through the debris, grabbing anything they could hold on to — branches, metal poles, roots, and boards. Several minutes later, a firefighter reached several feet down and pulled out a 2-year-old girl who looked like a “muddy doll.” Another firefighter cleared her airway. She was transported to the hospital. The girl suffered an injury to her hip, Johnson later learned, but she is expected to be fine. “I don’t know how that baby survived,” he recalled in an interview on the new cellphone he’d just picked up at AT&T.
Just before rescuing the girl, Johnson was in the middle of his own emergency. He awoke early that morning to heavy rain pounding on his Montecito roof. He went outside to clear the drains in his backyard and saw a huge explosion about a mile away. The only light was from the flames. Trees were falling one after another, rushing in his direction. A 10-foot wall of water and cement blocks and tree branches plowed toward him.
He thought he had 30 seconds.
He had six.
“It was so fast,” he said. “It was unbelievable.”
The whole house was caving in, he said. He ran upstairs to find his wife, daughter, and son on the second floor. “We saw our cars float away down the streets,” he said. Punctured propane tanks also streamed down the river. The family climbed out the window and crawled to the highest point of the roof. “We sat up there until it subsided” about 45 minutes later, he said.
When the muddy mess slowed down, Johnson said he immediately thought of his neighbors, two young boys and a single mom. Searching for them led him and the firefighters to the crying baby girl. “It was just amazing,” he said. “Had we not gone over there, I don’t think that kid would have [survived].” He does not know what happened to her parents.
The Johnson house was about a half mile from the Thomas Fire’s flames. During the fire, they had packed their valuables and transported them out of the area. They’d just brought them back and unloaded them. “We are pretty sad about the pictures and everything we didn’t pack,” he said. He said in the past it took seven or eight days of rain for the area to flood. “This was an hour of rain, and the house was gone.” To make matters worse, Johnson said, they had just remodeled their kitchen and put a fresh coat of paint on the exterior.
He expressed great appreciation for the fire crews, and he vowed to next time follow evacuation orders.
Three years ago, the Johnsons had made local headlines but in a tragic incident. Their 19-year-old son, Nick, died in the Santa Barbara High School swimming pool while training for water polo at his alma mater.