Hundreds of Montecito residents were rescued in the immediate aftermath of the 1/9 Debris Flow, some locking arms with firefighters to wade through thigh-high mud, others signaling frantically at U.S. Navy helicopters to pluck them from their roofs. The death toll was staggering — 21 lives lost, and two young people still missing — but more would have perished were it not for the first responders who lined up below the maw of the mountains before the storm blew in.
Here, Montecito Fire Division Chief Kevin Taylor explains how his small department of 47 men and women, in step with countless others across Santa Barbara in county, state, and federal agencies, prepared for the worst, and how they’re girding themselves and the community for more dangers ahead.
Walk me through your preparations. We started on December 26 with a meeting at 8:30 a.m. We said, hey, we have this new risk, and in order to communicate that to our chief officers, I showed them a couple of debris-flow videos. That got everybody’s attention. We utilized the FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] flood-risk model to figure out what preparation and response and recovery things to do internally at Montecito Fire. Then we brainstormed about what to do next.
First, we decided to engage our mapping professionals because our most robust maps were just for front-country fires. We didn’t have the district divided up into manageable chunks for a flood or debris-flow response. Next, we had our training battalion chief schedule an eight-hour refresher program on water rescue.
The front-country fire departments — Santa Barbara City, Montecito, and Carpinteria-Summerland — met shortly after. We came up with a pre-incident attack plan that we published on January 5, four days before the event. It looked at, for instance, a scenario where one of our battalion chiefs gets a call for a debris flow. What does he order? Where does he get it? All that stuff.
By Sunday night, the forecast had tightened quite a bit, with higher confidence of a storm and increased rainfall amounts. So we activated our incident management team at 8 Monday morning, and we brought everybody who was off duty [after the Thomas Fire] back on duty. We’d ordered up Cal Fire hand crews to finish clearing the creeks. The debris basins were all done.
We also ordered rescue resources like a swift water rescue team from Long Beach with 12 members, boats, vehicles. And we got four high-water vehicles from the National Guard. We checked on the availability of air resources from the Coast Guard and Navy, too. Our initial order was for four helicopters, and I believe the most we had was nine.
That’s a lot of hands to mobilize for something that might not even happen. Did that make people nervous? As soon as we activate, the bosses start writing checks. It’s a big deal anywhere to do all this in advance of an event, and it’s especially unheard of here — this has never occurred before in Santa Barbara County. The policy makers, the signatories, were sitting there like, “Jesus, am I going to be laying it all out every time we have a storm like this?” And we’re telling them, “Yes, you likely will. This is our new normal.”
How did you organize yourselves in the field? We broke up our fire district by watersheds, and we had people at Fire Station 1 [595 San Ysidro Road], Fire Station 2 [2300 Sycamore Canyon Road], and over in the Birnam Wood area. Overall, [the fire departments] had more than 200 responders ready to go. The Coast Guard and some of the swift water rescue guys were at Earl Warren Showgrounds. No one knew where this was going to occur. It could have been anywhere from Cold Springs Canyon to Highway 150.
And you have to remember, everyone is looking at the terrain they’ve worked their whole careers from an entirely different perspective. Firefighters receive training across all disciplines — structure fires, wildland fires, vehicle accidents, hazardous materials, basic water rescue. They’re very well trained, but a debris flow is something we see very rarely.
What was the first sign of trouble? At about 3:50 a.m., the explosion on Park Lane came over the radio. All of our resources immediately deployed in that direction. Then we started getting calls from the guys at Station 1 saying, “Hey, we can’t get help to you. We have a problem on San Ysidro.”
We have big maps at the incident command post that guys mark the calls on. At first it was: We have a catastrophic event from Cold Springs Canyon to Romero Canyon and everything in between. But I would say between 12 and 14 hours in, we had a very accurate picture, what we call a “common operating picture,” that the damage was concentrated along the waterways.
What difference did the pre-deployments make? When you have command and control before an event occurs, the response is more effective and efficient, which in layman’s terms means you save more people. Having outside help already in town made a huge difference, too.
Every time we go to a call, whether it’s a fender bender or a tragedy like this, we recognize there are things we do well, and there are things we don’t do so well. We call those “opportunities for improvement.” We now know we need certain tools and equipment like dry suits, fishing waders, coats, and water helmets for every single person.
FEMA Urban Search and Rescue also recently adopted a new mechanism of gridding pre-incident maps. Our searches were awesome during this event but will be even better next time. We tasked our incident command team with reinforcing our response plan, and they did that. Now we have an even more robust plan for the next three to five years when we receive heavy rainfalls.
Did you expect anything close to what actually happened? All of us hike and run the front country, and we fight fires there. We know how steep it is and how narrow the canyons are. We knew that the burn was severe and that the damage to the watershed was severe. All that was given. But we had absolutely no reference point. We’re now calling the incident the 1/9 Debris Flow to establish that reference point, so that everybody in the community knows what a debris flow looks like and the risk level.
After all this, how are your people doing? They’re doing very, very well. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event. Exceedingly traumatic. They saw things that you never hope to see in your career. They did things that you hope you never have to do in your career. But they’re doing well. I can’t even begin to tell you how proud I am of those people. The effort that they put forth starting December 5 with the Thomas Fire until just recently — it’s crazy commitment to the community. And I’ll tell you, when we asked them all to come back, they all came back. Nobody said, “Hey, I can’t,” or “I’m tired,” or “I’m burnt out.” They were all there, and they worked 12 days straight.
Our people have an intense amount of pride in their community. They’re still working right now in the middle of [the aftermath]. They drive past it every day, and their daily operations have changed. It’s a big deal.
What do you make of the low evacuation numbers? There will always be people who don’t believe us. They say, “If I think it’s safe, then I should be allowed to stay.” I respect that guy’s decision, but professionally, in exchange for that, he needs to understand that we may not be able to help him, or if we are able to help, it might be 24 hours [later].
But the question remains: How do you effectively communicate warnings? Because the community didn’t listen, so we didn’t do it right. Something is wrong with the sender, not the receiver.
As you can imagine, we’ve done a lot of research. We’re very confident in the 72-hour [weather forecast] and our pre-deployment strategies. I am less confident in our ability to immediately notify people [of danger]. We found there are really 13 notification methods — email, regular mail, texts, sirens, et cetera. Some of them are great short-term; some are great delayed. You really have to use all 13 of them.
What else have you learned in your research? We found that no matter what you do, there is always going to be this phenomenon called “milling.” That’s where I tell you that you have to evacuate, and you don’t believe me, so you search Twitter or check with your neighbor or spouse. The delay between me asking you to leave and you making up your mind, that’s milling.
Women are much more agreeable to evacuating than men. In a family, the man frequently stays behind to protect the cottage. What we’re trying to do is formulate a messaging plan so that we convince that gentleman to go with his family. You cannot get on your roof with a hose and protect your home from a debris flow.
The messaging has to be common and consistent. It has to be delivered with expertise that builds the public trust. The data say 87 percent of the public doesn’t trust government, so we have that working against us.
What about a siren system? The upside with sirens is that they’re immediate. The downside is that they’re super expensive, we need a whole bunch of them, and they’re a maintenance nightmare. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it, though. It’s clearly one of those 13 mechanisms. We’re looking at all of it.