Scrutinizing Santa Barbara County's reponse to Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flow

Oct 19, 2018

An analysis of how Santa Barbara County responded to the December 2017 Thomas Fire and January 9, 2018 Debris Flow was delivered to the Board of Supervisors this week. It’s called the "After Action Report and Improvement Plan." The supervisors heard from a third party about what the county did well in the midst and wake of the disasters, and how it can do better in the future.

The 36-page report was put together by Haggerty Consulting. They’ve analyzed responses to other natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy and the Refugio Oil Spill. Katie Freeman is the report’s project manager. At Tuesday's meeting, she detailed many things the county did well, such as robust information sharing following the disasters.

“The joint information center’s been able to come together to provide information and provide it consistently to the public,” Freeman said. “Provided across multiple channels, multiple platforms and in multiple languages. Really for an incident of this duration, it was a Herculean effort.”

Freeman said some of the county’s other strengths include timely maps provided to the public, use of volunteers and animal evacuations.

One of the biggest areas where Santa Barbara County could improve was the evacuation planning during the debris flow. Freeman said emergency instructions should be understandable for county staff, residents and first responders, as well as for English and non-English-speaking evacuees.

“Make sure information being shared with the public is consistent,” Freeman said. “And everyone understands that the terminology associated with both Ready Set Go, and an evacuation warning versus an order.”

County supervisors also offered their own thoughts on ways the county could improve in the future, like making it easier for people to return to their homes immediately following disasters.

“We set up a process by which we set up rules that made us look like hardasses, and then asked people to be dishonest in order to circumvent those rules,” Supervisor Das Williamson said. “That was a terrible way to handle things. There were people every day telling the sheriff’s department that they needed to get meds, because what they needed was to get clothes or access or to spend an hour getting the mud off the side of their house so it didn’t mold. It’s a really bad way of doing things to set up rules that are more stringent than what people will actually enforce in the field.”

There was one dissension to the report by a resident. David Boyd of Montecito spoke up after the analysis had been completed.

“The 23 deaths are the single most important legacy of the tragedy,” Boyd said. “And yet they are mentioned in only one brief sentence on page eight of the report and are not analyzed to determine how and why they occurred. “

Robert Lewin, director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management, was directed by Williamson to respond to Boyd’s statement in regards to how evacuations were handled during the debris flow.

“As decision makers, we base our decisions on the best information we have at the time,” Lewin said. “We believe we were prudent in our decisions to call for the evacuations that we did, based on the data and information that we had. We were operating in a fire that just occurred. And all the scientific data was not gathered in time.”

Lewin said that by January 24, the county was able to piece together risk maps developed by scientists and respond better.

Supervisor Peter Adam said some of the deaths were the result of residents not following orders.

“I know there was a lot of consternation when they evacuated your community,” Adam said to Boyd. “They were very worried [county officials] had done something for nothing. And lo and behold, they were absolutely spot on. And then people didn’t get out. People didn’t listen. You’re never going to eliminate the risk."

Supervisors Willaims and Janet Wolf said Santa Barbara County would continue to work with county staff to beef up early warning systems and are also hoping to procure the land needed to enlarge debris basins in the future, as the county works toward year-round disaster preparedness.