Surviving the Disaster in California – Important Lessons Learned

Prep Lessons Learned From A Disaster
Reporting from Montecito, California,

in the hardest hit area of the flood.


For the past three years, I have been a member of the Prepper Community, absorbing every article with great interest, archiving, bookmarking, running out to keep my food and prepping supplies in order. Today, I would like to share with you the first-hand account of the tenacity, bravery, and amazing stories in a small community of 10,000 people in the State of California.

A firestorm that began in Ventura after Thanksgiving moved across 440 square miles of mountain terrain, finally burning into the previous fires and extinguishing itself. With every fire, the next chapter is the rains and the havoc they leave behind.

Let me go back in time, so you can formulate a picture in your mind of the timeline of events and the scope of the disaster that is unfolding.

It was the week before Thanksgiving and family, guests and friends were arriving for all the usual celebrations in Northern Santa Barbara. My hubby and I were looking forward to our vacation in Idaho. Our rental home in Montecito was the last thing on our mind. We lived and raised our children in this home for twenty-five years. It was a beautiful enclave of homes situated among hundred year Oak Trees.

While sipping warm drinks in Idaho, my brother sends me a text to inform me of a fire that was moving rapidly from North of Santa Paula to Ventura, Ca. The day, Monday, December 5th. We kept a close eye on the developments in California and realized that we had to take the Northern most route into California due to freeway closures along the coast. The fire was heading towards Ojai, California and the concern was that it would jump the mountain range at Lake Casitas and head to Toro Canyon.

The Disaster Before the Disaster

On December 10th, we leave at 5:00 a.m., from Idaho and head through Oregon on Highway 95 to avoid the closure of the main coastal route into Santa Barbara, Ca. The weather conditions are icy and low visibility. We are traveling in the dark, on a highway, we are not familiar with, in poor visibility, with temperatures at 4 degrees. I have a go bag and feel extremely tense as we are the only car on the highway,

We make our way through all the mountain passes and drive 16 hours, but as we begin to enter the Santa Barbara area from the North, the plume of smoke and ash is extensive. Thankful to make our way to our home, we are carefully tracking the fire which has now jumped the mountain range and moved into Carpinteria.

We are certain the fire is heading directly for our home in Montecito, so we tell our tenants to leave and from there it is a tense week while we watch a fire obliterate the hills and houses all around us. As the fire exits and moves on, we return to see our home intact, but spot fires had burned all the landscape around our garage and guest cottage. The firefighters did an amazing job holding the fire back. But this is only the beginning of the devastation.

Without water, my husband and I begin to drive up the mountain towards the water tanks, we begin to realize the extent of the damage that the Thomas Fire left in its’ path. One hundred year Oak Trees were reduced to trunks and stumps, massive boulders were standing out like pearls on an ocean floor all along the mountain ranges. Hillsides that were once covered in brush, were now barren and exposed. More importantly, those were no longer just hiking trails, they were vertical slopes, with nothing to hold back the charred debris that was now littering the hillsides.

Disaster “On Our Doorstep”

When the announcement of the first winter storm hit the airwaves, we knew that if the rain was heavy, the floods would most likely destroy our home. On Monday, January 8th, we put sandbags and plywood in front of the doors and advised our tenants to leave. We pass by our neighbor’s house not realizing we would never see him again.

At 3:50 a.m., Tuesday, January 9 a flash flood, evacuate immediately warning was broadcasted on our phones. One hour later, my husband’s cell phone rings, it was his brother who lives down the road from us. They were trapped on the second floor of their home after a mudslide and had battery life on their cell phones, but no data. What was going on? They were cut-off from outside communications and did not dare go downstairs knowing there was a massive landslide.

Due to darkness, no one could foresee the tragedy that was unfolding in our close-knit community. At 7:00 a.m. my husband’s brother and wife begin making their way through the debris, only to realize that everything is destroyed and they are literally looking at 8-foot walls of mud, overturned cars, and debris everywhere.

They find a beloved neighbor dead in the debris and begin searching for his wife. She is alive but badly injured, their home had a twenty foot by a thirty-foot wide wall of mud and debris crash through it. Another neighbor is trapped in their home and carried out. They were in bed without any clothing and unable to climb out.

Many people are swept from their beds, houses literally wiped off the foundations, as the debris moved at speeds of thirty miles per hour or more through roads and creeks. From West Cold Springs Creek, six miles across the Los Padres Range to Toro Canyon, the face of the charred mountain let loose and buried everything for two and a half miles, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The mudflow through our neighbors home was over twenty feet high by thirty feet wide.

The Danger of Too Much Disaster Stress

Nothing can prepare humans for unexpected devastation. Furthermore, humans can only process so much and then they shut down and tune out. This is exactly what happened in the days leading up to this storm.

The Thomas Fire was a 24/7 media event that resulted in people either losing their homes or, like us, staying glued to the computer and television trying to figure out if our home was still standing. After seven days of being evacuated and non-stop media, blaring doom and gloom, people were relieved to be home and the bad news behind them. Over 85% of the people that were told to mandatorily evacuate for possible flooding, did not heed the warning. The highest number of fatalities were along the creeks in the voluntary evacuation zone.

Many people felt the warnings were overkill, myself included. While I could see the threat, I could not conceive of the scenario that is before us today.

Lessons from Being On the Ground

Lessons to learn from this, yes, be prepared. Many people had no utilities and were trapped by the mud. They had to shelter in place until the first responders could dig their way to them.

Two, keep your phones charged at all times. This was the only way the responders could know where you were. Over 600 calls to 911 were made by people stating they were trapped.

See – EDC for Regular People and Then Some! The One Item You’ll Go Back Home For!

Three, taking a hike up the mountain, confirmed for me the danger we were in after the fire. Many people did not understand what was behind their homes on the hillsides. Know your neighborhood!

See – Tools to Help You Maintain Situational Awareness in Your Local Community!

Four, be friends with your neighbors. Those that have lost everything need you.

Five, mud and debris are damn dangerous. We tried to hike around to get to our brother-in-law’s home and I became stuck in two feet of mud. My husband found a large branch and put it next to me. I had to methodically hand dig each foot out by hand. He had to just keep me from panicking and stay out of the mudflow, otherwise, he would be trapped, too. It is really hard to remain calm.

Stay with a buddy. You will get into trouble and it is not safe.

Prepping is also about “love thy neighbor.” We are now going in and helping everyone dig out. Many times on prepping websites I have read comments about abandoning people who are not prepared. Read the Bible. The level of destruction in an event is beyond human comprehension. Use all your resources and help others. You can build them back again if necessary.

Finally, if all the experts are telling you they are concerned and to get out, don’t be a hero. Right now, there are 19 dead people, ages 3 to 89. A community of 10,000 people has been destroyed. It could take years to bring this area back. Mother Nature is a cruel reminder of how insignificant we are and how we cannot control or foresee every situation, no matter how prepared.

This is a guest post.

See – What Do I Put In My Survival Kit!


This article first appeared on Ed That Matters.

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Todd Sepulveda

I'm the owner/editor of Prepper Website, a DAILY preparedness aggregator that links to the best preparedness articles on the internet. I'm also a public school administrator and a pastor. My personal blog is Ed That Matters, where I write about preparedness and from time to time, education. Connect with me on one of my social media outlets below.

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