In December, the Thomas Fire – the largest wildfire in California’s recorded history – was ignited and has since burned more than 281,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. It is still burning, though it is now 92 percent contained.
The fire burned away much of the vegetation in those areas, creating a hazardous situation if any rain fell.
When a storm did hit in Santa Barbara County on Tuesday, there was nothing to hold back the mud, boulders, and debris that then came rushing down the hillsides in a terrifying avalanche.
The deluge began around 3 a.m., meaning most people were asleep in their beds, completely unaware of the dangers facing them. While some people were given mandatory evacuation orders, an area in Montecito, California, put under a voluntary evacuation warning ended up getting the brunt of the mudslide.
Cars, trees, houses – and people – were swept away in the deluge. Between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. Tuesday as the rain fell, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office dispatchers handled more than 600 phone calls for help.
Emergency crews responded right away, but the search for survivors hasn’t been easy. Main roads have been blocked by debris and many homes in the area are practically inaccessible.
Sadly, 17 people have already been confirmed dead and it is believed 8 are still missing.
It is in tragic times like these, though, that you truly see human kindness shine through.
Neighbors went out as soon as they could to try to find those who were missing and help those in need.
One man, Berkeley Johnson, is being hailed a hero for his actions on that first terrifying day.
Johnson was outside when he saw the wave of mud rushing toward him.
“Coming up from the river was just trees dropping, and then I saw it, probably 20 feet high of just rock and cars and trunks of trees, and I just ran for it,” he said.
He opened a window in his home so the debris had somewhere to go and then got up on his roof, not knowing if he would make it out alive.
But in the midst of the darkness and the roar of the rushing mud, Johnson suddenly heard a cry coming from a nearby pile of debris. He quickly went over to where the noise was coming from, and when he saw what was buried in the mud, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“I don’t know how we heard it because it was so loud,” he said. “Went into this pile and down in the muck in the middle of nowhere, there was a little baby. This little child just in the mud, up to its… tangled in the roots and metal and the rock and if we weren’t standing within two feet of that thing we wouldn’t have ever heard it.”
He quickly called for some firefighters who were able to save the mud-covered little girl. Miraculously, she was fine.
“The girl’s okay. Unbelievable,” Johnson said. “If you’ve seen … there’s just no way we should have found that child.”
Sadly, there are others still missing, but residents and rescue workers refuse to give up hope.
“We still have to have hope and believe that people can be found,” said Montecito resident Curt Pickering. “There’s dogs everywhere searching, but I truly believe we are going to find more people alive.”
If you have any information about those who are missing, please call 805-681-5542. Anyone looking to locate their loved ones can call 833-688-5551.