Lessons Learned from May’s Loma Fire

Santa Barbara City Officials Address Westside Residents’ Concerns over Lack of Emergency Notifications, Debris Flow Risk

Some lower Westside residents are upset they received no text message alerts the night the hillside above Loma Alta Road went up in a sudden tidal wave of flames. | Credit: S.B. County Fire / Mike Eliason

A handful of high-ranking Santa Barbara City officials — including the mayor, the district councilmember, and the police and fire chiefs — showed up at Parque de los Niños on Saturday for a neighborhood meet-and-greet to address lingering questions and concerns about last month’s Loma Fire. In attendance were about 80 lower Westside residents, some still upset they received no text message alerts the night the hillside above Loma Alta Road went up in a sudden tidal wave of flames, set by a suspect described as a homeless meth-head arsonist. 

One woman termed the night of the fire as “a traumatic event” and described families living in the tightly populated neighborhoods below fleeing with their wide-eyed children in tow. They would have been greatly relieved, she said, had they received text messages stating, “Fire traveling uphill; people not in any danger.”  

Acting Police Chief Barney Melekian did not disagree as he distinguished between texts that alert and those that send simple messages. Alerts, he said, are reserved for households in risk. Messages could easily have gone to residents living below the fire who, Melekian acknowledged, would have no basis for knowing in the heat of moment that they were not, in fact, in harm’s way. 

At the time, the fire was barreling uphill — not down — pushed by winds gusting at more than 50 miles an hour. Fire, those in attendance learned, travels uphill four times faster than downhill; when blown by wind, it’s more like 16-20 times faster. 

City Fire Chief Chris Mailes explained that the urgency was getting engines stationed at the top of the hill to keep the fire — which, he said, went from a one to a 10 within five minutes — from spreading to Shoreline Park. None of this, however, was evident or obvious to people living downslope looking up. 

Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez, who represents the neighborhood, got an earful from residents wanting to know why they got no heads-up and how they are supposed to escape if and when a more serious fire strikes. To that end, he convened Saturday’s meeting, which was notably congenial. 

For those neighbors to have been alerted, city police would have had to alert the county’s Department of Emergency Services, which would draw an electronic map of the targeted households and craft a message for the parties to be texted. Typically, such messaging occurs after firefighters have been engaged for some time. Chief Mailes noted that in many fires — especially the larger ones — evacuation planners have 24 to 48 hours to notify affected residents. In this case, because the fire moved so fast, he said it was more like 24 seconds. 

Melekian said the police department is considering whether to take on messaging responsibility, but he noted that at the time of the fire, only two police dispatchers were on duty. In the first hour of the fire, he said, they fielded 153 calls. Regardless, such messaging might have helped discourage the many lookie-loos choking the narrow, winding streets during the time of the fire. Likewise, it would go a long way toward countering the sometimes-inaccurate information provided by various social media to those desperate for information. 

Acting Public Works Director Joshua Haggmark assured those in attendance that the large slope left blackened and denuded by the fire did not pose a debris-flow risk on par with the one that hit Montecito after the Thomas Fire in January 2018. The hillsides were not nearly as steep or long to pack that same potential for violence, Haggmark explained. But should it rain between now and the fall, he added, Loma Alta would be blocked off to traffic and K-rails erected to prevent rain, mud, and other debris from sloughing down the slopes. In the meantime, he said, the road would remain open. 

Perhaps the most intriguing tidbit came from a man in the crowd who declined to identify himself and claimed that the alleged arsonist had been cut loose from a mental-health hold two days before the fire. The accused arsonist, the man alleged, had informed his mental-health case worker that he intended to burn himself up and take TV Hill down with him. Chief Melekian said he had not heard this. 

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