Five years have passed since the 2017 Thomas Fire and 2018’s catastrophic 1/9 Debris Flow rocked Montecito and the surrounding community. Santa Barbara County has made significant efforts to recover over these last five years, but painful memories and emotions tied to the events have still lingered for many residents. This year’s anniversary has been made even more taxing by the back-to-back storms that have battered South County in the past two weeks, triggering evacuation orders in many of the same Montecito neighborhoods that were inundated with mud and debris five years ago today.
The Thomas Fire was the largest fire in modern California history at the time, and destroyed 1,063 structures and damaged 280 others across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The subsequent debris flow on January 9 took a large toll on Montecito, with 23 lives lost and 500 properties destroyed or damaged as a result.
Kathryn Kendrick was a senior at Santa Barbara High School when the 1/9 Debris Flow occurred. She said she and her family did not evacuate from their Montecito home when they were told to because they, like many of their neighbors, did not want to have to leave their home again following the Thomas Fire evacuations.
“My mom and I stayed after the evacuation order because we were like, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’” she said.
Around 3:30 a.m. on January 9, 2018, a winter storm dumped around a half-inch of rain in a matter of minutes over the Thomas Fire burn scar in the mountains above Montecito, sending a torrent of water, mud, burned trees, and large boulders rushing down the canyons into the community below. Kendrick said the bridge to her house was demolished, her car was swept into a tree and totaled, and she was stuck with her neighbors for three days without power. However, while reflecting on her experience, she emphasized how lucky she felt.
“I think what the most frustrating part was that I had just been evacuated from my home because of the Thomas Fire for a month,” Kendrick said. “Then I’m back home for, like, a week, and then the mudslide, and I’m not there for another four months. But I’m lucky that was the worst part for me, and not that I lost someone I cared about.”
“It luckily missed my house but destroyed the house beneath us,” Kendrick continued. “I remember all of the, you know, piece-by-piece hearing, ‘This person is missing,’ and ‘This person was found dead.’ It was just so shocking. I feel like it’s shocking to hear, for someone who was out of the evacuation zone who didn’t experience that, and losing people from your community, but it’s another type of shocking when you’re like, ‘Oh, that so closely could have been me.’”
Kendrick said that she was thankful that she and her family were unharmed, but the event continued to have an effect on her in the time following.
“For a while, every time it rained really hard, I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “We were staying in Summerland, so there was really no area where a mudslide could happen. But every time it rained, I was just wide awake. Because I was thinking, you know, ‘What if it happens again?’”
Last Wednesday’s storm and evacuation orders for the Thomas, Alisal, and Cave fire burn areas were understandable sources of distress for those who had to leave their homes. Then this Monday, another winter storm arrived, triggering an evacuation order for Montecito on the five-year anniversary of the 1/9 Debris Flow.
The Montecito Fire Protection District’s Raising Our Light community remembrance ceremony that was scheduled to take place on Monday was canceled due to the storm. Officials said they canceled the gathering so individuals could focus on their safety, and will look for an opportunity to reschedule “when the skies are clear and conditions are safe.”
Although community members could not gather for the Raising Our Light event, officials are encouraging everyone to “acknowledge memories and emotions that may surface around the 1/9 disaster anniversary,” especially in the face of this year’s winter storms.
“I think without doubt that all of us and our whole community are kind of shocked and saddened by seeing the weather predictions right now being on the five-year anniversary date,” said Suzanne Grimmesey, Public Information Officer for the county’s Department of Behavioral Wellness. “It’s triggering for a lot of people. For people that were directly impacted by the debris flow five years ago, we have gotten a few calls of people just asking to be linked to support.”
Grimmesey said that the reactions people have on anniversary dates can be similar to the way they felt when the event first occurred.
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“So we’re seeing people feel sadness, anxiety or stress, or worry,” she said. “People are kind of sitting in waiting and wondering what’s going to happen. So, very similar to the feelings that people felt five years ago.”
The Community Wellness Team, a collaboration of local agencies to provide mental health resources and counseling to community members, was created in 2018 in response to the emotional toll the Thomas Fire and Debris Flow tragedies had on residents.
“When the debris flow happened, there were hundreds of therapists calling from out of the area offering to help,” Grimmesey said. “And though it was wonderful to have the help, it would have been disorganized that way; and yet the needs of our community were far greater than any one organization, even the county could assist with.”
In response to that need, about 13 different organizations collaborated to form the Community Wellness Team. According to Grimmesey, it was not intended to be long-term, but the team has continued to provide mental health support to those who need it five years later.
“The Community Wellness Team is still present, there’s a phone line that people can call and have called that had been impacted by a traumatic event, or the triggering of the anniversary date of the debris flow,” she said. “We can link them to resources, so there have been calls that have come in and we have been able to support with that.”
The team contributed to one of eight recovery efforts guided by Thomas Fire and 1/9 Debris Flow Recovery Strategic Plan, which is laid out in the five-year Recovery Update Report that was to be presented at the Board of Supervisors’ meeting this Tuesday, January 10, before it was postponed due to the storm.
According to the report, the county’s and Flood Control District’s approach to the 1/9 Debris Flow recovery effort emphasized “mitigating hazards/risks and associated safety concerns, educating the community on future storm or debris flow, minimizing future risks, and addressing the community’s need to rebuild quickly.”
Those efforts included updated plans for storm preparation and evacuation, long-term flood control mitigation, economic recovery, rebuilding of private property and clearing debris, securing funding for additional hazard mitigation projects, repairing and modifying infrastructure in and around Montecito, protecting natural and cultural resources, and community engagement.
“As neighborhoods recovered from the Thomas Fire and 1/9 Debris Flow tragedy, the immediate goal was to help the community move forward by bringing together the collective resources of local government, nonprofit organizations, philanthropy and community groups to make strategic, inclusive decisions and create a more resilient Montecito,” the report states. “The concept of resilience — increasing the community’s ability to withstand a future natural disaster and recovery more quickly — played a central role in the recovery.”
While the county has focused on rebuilding, repairing, and strengthening the community’s resiliency, the Department of Behavioral Wellness has focused on rebuilding the community in a different sense.
“While this is a time to recognize all that has been accomplished and how far we have come as a community, it is important to acknowledge that emotional, physical and spiritual rebuilding still continues on various levels for many,” the department said in a press release on January 4.
Behavioral Wellness has suggested multiple coping strategies for community members who may be experiencing painful memories and emotions as a result of the 1/9 Debris Flow anniversary and the recent storms.
“One [strategy] is for people to stop and pause, reflect on what they are feeling to acknowledge what they’re feeling, and to be gentle on themselves,” Grimmesey said. “Take time to feel, and to allow others to support them. Even taking time to be involved, in a way that you might be supporting others, or volunteering to help in some ways, is helpful. Keeping a schedule or maintaining a schedule of some sort, eating healthy, staying hydrated, and protecting sleep is really important. And staying connected to other people: talking, telling stories, talking about memories, all that stuff is especially helpful right now.”
The Community Wellness Team remains available to offer support and can be reached by calling (805) 364-2750. For linkage to mental health services or for urgent or crisis needs, please call the Behavioral Wellness 24/7 Access line at 1 (888) 868-1649. To learn more about the County of Santa Barbara Department of Behavioral Wellness, visit countyofsb.org/274/Behavioral-Wellness.