Peter Fleurat was the kind of guy everyone wanted to be around. Houseguests who came to visit stayed for years. The patients he served while a nurse and caregiver became close friends.
He also had a wild side, friends said. At the end of a trip to New Zealand, Fleurat decided at the airport he wanted to stay. So he did. On a trip to Mallorca, he hiked over sketchy sheep-trails “just to get to a skinny-dipping cove full of jellyfish and octopi,” recalled friend Robert Borneman.
When he traveled with his longtime partner Lalo Barajas to Mexico to visit family, Barajas’s nieces and nephews would exclaim, “Peter! Peter!” Lalo would laugh, “What am I, chopped liver?”
At 73, Fleurat, Barajas said, was like a cat.
So when the January 9 mud storm rushed through their Montecito house, Barajas thought for sure Peter would figure out some way to survive. The couple jolted awake that morning to an orange glow in the sky from a ruptured gas line. Barajas ran to the bedroom to put on a pair of shorts. They jumped on the vanities in the bathroom. Ten seconds later, the wall “blew open” and they were thrown into the mudflow.
Barajas recalled Fleurat yelled at him: “Grab onto something, and don’t let go.”
Barajas grabbed a tree trunk from the side and pulled himself around it. He worried a boulder would snap his body in half, but he thought it was his only hope. He hung on for what “felt like a long time.”
Barajas then heard cries for help from a woman nearby and yelled out for a rescue team to go help her, he recalled. When he finally got in an ambulance, he was transported to All Saints-by-the-Sea Church. He said he heard from friends that Fleurat had been transported to the hospital. Barajas sent photos of Fleurat to Cottage, hoping they would be able to identify him. Barajas wondered why he wasn’t calling.
He was later told Fleurat’s body was found near four others at the corner of Hot Springs and Olive Mill roads.
Like the thousands of residents who experienced the horrific January 9 landslide, Barajas keeps replaying the whole thing in his mind. He was not sure he remembered everything correctly. But he spoke to a friend who was on the phone with Fleurat amid the traumatic few minutes and overheard everything. The friend confirmed he had heard Fleurat tell Barajas to grab onto something. “That’s what saved me,” Barajas said in an interview this week at Rose Café, the Mexican restaurant on the Mesa he has owned since the ’80s.
Santa Barbara businesses have struggled in the several weeks since the Thomas Fire erupted in early December. The Rose Café was busy with patrons on Wednesday morning. A few regulars showed up to the restaurant on December 10 with flowers because the Santa Barbara News-Press erroneously reported that Barajas had been killed.
Barajas explained he feels some regret because Fleurat always wanted to get married. The couple had been together since November 17, 1999. He met Fleurat through an acquaintance, and they became friends before their romantic relationship developed. Barajas said he went over to his Montecito house one night and never left.
Fleurat had lived in the Hot Springs house for decades. He lived through the 1995 floods. “He knew the dangers,” Barajas said. “But not these dangers. It was like someone flushed a toilet.”
The night before, Barajas and Fleurat had parked their cars outside the gate of their driveway so they would be ready to go. They were under voluntary warnings. If they had been under mandatory evacuation orders, Barajas said, they absolutely would have left the night before. They would also likely have gotten out of the area in time, Barajas said, if Verizon’s text-message warnings had gone out. (The cell tower was destroyed by the storm.)
In the two weeks since the storm, Barajas said some days he feels emotional, other days empty. Every day, though, he has been overwhelmed with generosity. Friends and relatives have given him everything from suitcases to an SUV.
He lost almost everything. Mysteriously, he found several personal items unscathed a half mile from the house — four unbroken bottles of wine, a stack of tablecloths he’d bought in Chiapas, Mexico, blossomed plants, and Fleurat’s original passport and photographs. When he went back to the property, he found his two kayaks had hardly moved at all. “I can’t figure it out,” he said.