By Karen Ramirez
On December 22nd 2017, the Thomas Fire became California’s largest wildfire in modern history. It was contained on January 12th 2018 after burning 1,141 km2 of mountainous terrain and 1,600 structures in the Southern Californian counties of Ventura and Santa Barbara. This fire was frightening not just because of its size, burning an area larger than New York City, Washington, DC, and San Francisco combined, but also because of its incredible speed. Within just a few hours of its ignition on December 4th, the fire had already burned 182 km2 and at least 150 structures. It expanded rapidly day by day, fueled by warm Santa Ana winds gusting up to 97 km/h and endless dry chaparral vegetation that had not burned in decades. Almost 100,000 residents were affected by mandatory and voluntary evacuations as well as hazardous air quality and frequent power outages. The Thomas Fire was only extinguished after more than a month of tireless efforts by the largest fire crew ever mobilized in California; consisting of over 8,500 firefighters from multiple US states. Tragically, the containment of California’s largest fire was overshadowed by an even deadlier disaster that struck the same community on January 9th 2018.
After multiple years of drought and record-breaking high temperatures in the summer and fall of last year, many hoped that if rain arrived in December it could help put out the fire. It was only after the Thomas fire had already burned more than 1,000 km2 of land and was mostly contained, that a rainstorm was forecast to arrive in early January. Although finding the timing ironic, most members of the community did not realize the destruction this ill-timed storm would unleash.
In preparation for the storm, mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders were issued to the residents of Montecito, an unincorporated community of Santa Barbara County. For multiple days, community leaders warned that the Thomas Fire had created the perfect conditions for the incoming storm to cause dangerous floods, landslides and debris flows. According to the Santa Barbara Independent, after deputies went door-to-door in the mandatory evacuation zone imploring people to leave, only 15 to 20 percent chose to comply. After the fact it seems obvious that everyone should have left when they still had the chance, but many were possibly experiencing “disaster burnout” after having already evacuated for weeks during the fire or may not have had the ability to easily evacuate.
The storm that struck in the middle of the night was worse than predicted. It has later been described as a once-in-every-200-years event. The intensity of the rainfall, 22mm in fifteen minutes, was the trigger needed to unleash massive debris flows down the steep fire-eroded mountains towards the homes of thousands of residents. Even though warnings had been repeatedly issued, those who stayed did not understand that debris flows can move up to 56 km/h and are composed of a cement-like slurry of soil and water, boulders, and trees that can easily knock people over and rapidly destroy most anything in its path. In other cases of considerable rainfall, vegetation and soil normally help to absorb excess water, but in this case, the Thomas Fire had left behind a huge expanse of scorched mountains and charred trees. Further, intense wildfires can change the composition of soil, making it almost waterproof, reducing how much water can be absorbed and accelerating the flow of water and debris downslope.
When residents received an emergency alert at 3:51 am, the debris flows were already on their way. By the time they felt their homes shake and heard a rumbling resembling that of a freight-train – a sound caused by massive boulders and trees being propelled by the debris flows – it was too late to get out. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, when a couple opened their front door to see what was going on they were swept outside by “a wall of mud, debris and boulders as big as pickup trucks…” He became pinned to a fence, “buried up to his neck in mud [and] she was swept away.” Countless such tragedies unfolded that morning as the mud flowed through unstoppable.
The economic loss to local businesses, affected workers and survivors of both the fire and subsequent debris flows has been immense, but nothing compares to the grief that many families, and the wider community, are coping with. At least 21 members of the small Montecito community perished due to the debris flows, with ages ranging from 89 to just 3 years old. The search for two children who are still missing, aged 2 and 17 years old, has continued in an effort to provide closure to their families. While financial reparations can be made and homes can be rebuilt, nothing can bring back those who were lost. Unfortunately for the communities that survived the Thomas Fire, the danger of future mudslides and debris flows will be present for at least the next five years, the amount of time it can take for vegetation to sufficiently grow back.
The factors that helped make the Thomas Fire so destructive, the drought conditions and record-breaking heat, made 2017 a record year for fires across the world. Many regions including multiple western US states, British Columbia, Chile and Portugal, each had their worst fire season ever. With more intense and frequent fires predicted in the coming years, choices need to be made regarding land management, zoning practices, fire prevention methods and whether the world will live with or fight against this “new normal” of bigger and more destructive fires. The type of destruction caused by out-of-control wildfires, as well as the subsequent potential for damaging debris flows and long-term negative health effects caused by exposure to smoke, is terrifying to experience. But as the world heats up, it is regrettably a threat that many more communities will have to face.
By Karen Ramirez