Reflections on a community disaster

This aerial photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department shows mudflow and damage to homes in Montecito, California, on January 10. (Photo: Matt Udkow/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)

The events of the last few weeks here in Santa Barbara have been unimaginable. To begin with, we had a wild fire that started some 30 miles away in Ventura County. It was devastating to the Ventura community, destroying more than 1,000 homes.

Within days, the fire ran across the ridges, fanned by 50-plus mile per hour winds, as if on a mission to get as fast as possible to the small coastal town of Santa Barbara. Very soon, the fire found its way from Ventura County to Santa Barbara County.

The brutal fire fight went on for a few more days, and we were all glued to news and county official reports, watching it get closer and closer. Smoke and ash darkened the sky days ahead of the fire. Firefighters ascribed human characteristics to the fire, calling it vicious, ravenous, aggressive, evil and non-discriminate. Ultimately, fire officials simply referred to it as “the monster.”

On the afternoon of December 16, with the leading edge of the fire just above the Santa Barbara foothills, it culminated in a standoff between the monster and more than 8,000 fighters from across the U.S. A line was drawn, represented by a strategically located fire break.

It worked. The fire break held. Proudly, the largest officially recorded fire in California history was controlled. By then, the Thomas fire had covered nearly 290,000 acres, destroyed more than 1,000 residences in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and was responsible for two confirmed fatalities, including CalFire engineer Cory Iverson from San Diego.

Unfortunately, this was not the end of the story.

Then the rains came

Over the next few days, the community gave a tremendous outpouring of thanks and admiration to all the first responders. The community celebrated them with great fan fair, with banners across many of the freeway overpasses, pancake breakfasts, and ceremonies of gratitude across the region. They were true heroes protecting the lives and property of people they did not know.

A new problem, however, was on the horizon. Significant rain was forecast to hit around midnight on January 8. This was bad news for Santa Barbara residents living below the mountains, canyons and foothills that had just been burnt bare.

This article comes from an update Santa Barbara City College Superintendent/President Anthony E. Beebe posted on his Facebook page on January 10. It is printed here with permission.

The hills had been burnt clear of trees, shrubs, and other vegetation to absorb any rain, much less the heavy rain predicted. This was compounded by the fact that we continue to be in a significant years-long drought.

When the rain came, it was a deluge. At one point, it was reported that as much as 1/2 an inch of rain hit in a five-minute period. Incredible! It continued to rain, although not as hard.

With nothing to hold things in place, the soil in the burn scar area, saturated with water, came roaring down the steep foothills. Catastrophic debris flow ripped down the hills from the 3,000-foot level, gathering incredible speed and momentum for miles, heading to the ocean.

Large tree limbs, car-sized boulders and other heavy debris blasted everything in its path. In some cases, the speed of the debris flow was estimated at 40 miles per hour. There was no time for people to react. Homes were wiped completely off foundations. Mud and sludge enveloped everything.

As of this writing, 17 people are confirmed dead, with more than 25 injuries and over 100 rescues. There are still eight people missing.
Countless numbers of lives were saved due to the preemptive evacuation orders that were put into place the day before the storm was scheduled to hit.

However, many chose to remain in their homes and some places that were not in an evacuation area were severely impacted.

Serving those who serve us

Throughout all of this, Santa Barbara City College has been a haven for the community. The college’s main campus rests atop a mesa, so it is safe from floods. The American Red Cross set up an evacuation shelter on the campus. About 40 evacuees were brought to the college yesterday morning and last night.

Additionally, we facilitated space for firefighter crews to spend the night in our cafeteria to get some rest before heading back out into the field. Our College Emergency Operations Center team has been active for more than a month, meeting daily and in some cases multiple times a day. We have learned a lot, and the team has done a remarkable job!

I was grateful that the Santa Barbara City College Foundation, led by CEO Geoff Green, made a “Unity Donation” of $5,000 to both the Ventura College Foundation and to the Santa Rosa Junior College Foundation in the wake of disasters affecting those communities. The philosophy is that we must support each other through horrific times like this. That’s really the big lesson learned.

Similarly, we can never forget that our communities look to their community colleges, whether it’s Ventura College, Santa Rosa Junior College, Santa Barbara City College, or any of the other amazing community college in the nation, as beacons of hope, not just for educational opportunity, but also as a safe harbor in times of disaster.

Thank you so very much for all of your support and generosity. I am humbled and strengthened by your fellowship.

About the Author

Anthony E. Beebe
is superintendent and president of Santa Barbara City College in California.