A Crisis Response Account of the Santa Barbara Thomas Fire

By: Carrie Topliffe, Director, Santa Barbara County DCSS

I am thrilled that things are returning to normal in Santa Barbara after the terrible Thomas Fire run. I first became aware of the problem when the power went out on Monday, December 4 as I was packing for an early morning trip to Sacramento the next day. As one of 263,000 customers in the dark, little did I know that by then another Santa Barbara County department head and dear friend had already lost everything she owned when her Ventura apartment went up in flames. She barely got out alive, so that is my first gratitude about this situation.

Flying out of SB that next morning, the entire 360-degree horizon was black-rimmed. By the time I returned home on Wednesday evening, Santa Barbara was accepting Ventura evacuees – humans and animals — and was evacuating our own south county communities of Carpinteria and Rincon.

I have been trained to serve as a Public Information Officer in the Joint Information Center (JIC) of our Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and when our EOC went to a Level 3 (highest) activation on December 7, I was asked to make myself available for some eight hour shifts. And so began 12 straight days of working in the JIC—coupled with 61 hours of Child Support time during the pay period.

Besides all the logistical nightmares of getting firefighters into our back country and evacuating residents from our canyons and switchback mountain roads, our air turned red with suspended particles and ash, and immediately hit unhealthy levels. In response, the schools all closed, residents were told to stay inside, and we began a massive distribution system for free N-95 masks. Three days in, we had distributed 400,000 masks, I have no idea how we got all those masks so fast.

Santa Barbara backcountry wildfires are famous in firefighting circles all over the world. They call it “extreme behavior” and it includes trees exploding at a great distance from flames, fireballs hurling in multiple directions, and massive fire runs. It was a sad morning when I pulled up to the EOC and found the flag at half mast and learned that firefighter Cory Iverson had died near Fillmore. We also lost a former county employee whose car went off the road while she was evacuating, so as much as we feel we dodged a bullet here, there is plenty of sorrow, too. Sixteen homes lost in Santa Barbara (added to the hundreds lost in Ventura County). 

The worst period of the fire occurred for us in the early morning hours of Saturday, December 16. We had 65 mph winds pushing the fire toward town, and like many residents, I could see the flames from my back yard. Our JIC morning shift that day began at 3 am, and we made notification about many sequential evacuations, carefully plotted so that the roads wouldn’t be overrun. That effort was complicated when a gasoline tanker overturned on the northbound Highway 101, closing down the major evacuation route for 24 hours and even requiring CalTrans to repave the road.

Since I’ve been working in the JIC, we’ve had the Zaca Fire (240,000 acres, July 2007); the Gap Fire (9,443, 4 homes, July 2008); the Tea Fire (1,940 acres, 210 homes, November 2008); the Jesusita Fire (8,733 acres, 80 homes, May,2009); the La Brea Fire (91,622, August, 2009) and the Sherpa Fire (7,474 acres, June, 2016). This one has been different in how long it’s lasted, how close it’s been to populated areas, and the severity of the air quality effects. Those old burn scars have been helpful in slowing down the Thomas rampage, and part of the strategy has been to push the fire toward them.

From an EOC perspective, all those experiences have really created a high functioning emergency response in Santa Barbara. I can’t tell you how proud I am of the coordination and cooperation I witnessed behind the scenes. We have a newly-built EOC that was swarming with people from within and outside the county family, all working with competence and dedication.

From a JIC perspective, our response was, in my humble opinion, superb. We put up an interactive map that showed all the voluntary and mandatory evacuation areas, where you could type in an address and have its location appear on the map. We made notification about all those masks and school closures as well as evacuation centers and the implementation and lifting of evacuations. We got out reverse 9-1-1 calls, put out press releases and televised daily briefings for the public. We tried to make our county website the go-to source for fire information, and we passed 100 million hits. For the first time ever, we did simultaneous Spanish and English messaging – and even got complimented by the Governor for that!

I want to tell you that our Child Support staff was also superb. For the first few days, our Ventura-living staff couldn’t make it to work, so everyone pitched in to cover the gaps. Of course, Ventura kept answering our phones, and we are deeply grateful for that, in fair weather and foul. Some of us were under evacuation orders or warnings, or had children unexpectedly out of school, but everyone kept coming to work, and our County General Services even delivered large air-filtering machines to our office to help us with the air quality.

Now we’re just trying to get back to normal. Wage workers took a bad hit because so many businesses closed. The ballet company that employs my daughter lost $100,000 when it had to cancel two Nutcracker performances on that terrible 12/16 Saturday. Retailers are hurting. Our JIC team was out through the holiday, holding town halls to let people know about all the resources that are available thanks to Thomas being declared a federal, state and local emergency, so we’re keeping up our efforts to take care of our community.

Editor’s Note: Director Topliffe wrote this prior to the mudslides that claimed even more lives and property in Santa Barbara County. Our hearts go out to those who suffered in the duo of natural disasters.