December 11, 2018, 2:50

After the Mudslides, an Absence in Montecito |

After the Mudslides, an Absence in Montecito |

The eerie thing about these nights in Montecito has to do with absence.
The absence, first of all, of my neighbors, almost all of whom are under
a mandatory evacuation order. They are gone, their houses dark, their
cars rolling down other streets altogether—or, in the worst cases,
crushed as if for repurposing in the scrap yard. Most homes are without
electricity, which brings the darkness close, and the stillness too.
Apart from the sounds of nature—the muffled hoots of the owls come to
nest in the woods out back of my house and the chirrup of the tree frogs
enlivened by the first rain here in nearly a year—there is the delicate,
almost apologetic beeping of the heavy equipment brought in to clear
away the debris. The helicopters, a continuous, twenty-four-hour-a-day
presence during the first week, are for the most part gone now, the
survivors airlifted to safety and the search for the missing left to the
cadaver dogs.

I moved here twenty-five years ago, attracted by the natural beauty and
semirural ambience, the short walk to the beach and the Lower Village,
and the enveloping views of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which rise
abruptly from the coastal plain to hold the community in a stony
embrace. We have no sidewalks here, if you except the business districts
of the Upper and Lower Villages—if we want sidewalks, we can take the
five-minute drive into Santa Barbara or, more ambitiously, fight traffic
all the way down the coast to Los Angeles. But we don’t want sidewalks.
We want nature, we want dirt, trees, flowers, the chaparral that did its
best to green the slopes and declivities of the mountains until last
month, when the biggest wildfire in California
history reduced it all to ash.

My first intimation of this fire came on a faint whiff of smoke during
the early-morning hours of December 5th. I didn’t think much of it. We
always sleep with the window open, and occasionally, depending on
meteorological conditions, our downstairs fireplace will send a furtive
thread of smoke up over the house and down through the bedroom window,
so this smell of burning was nothing out of the ordinary. Up early, as
usual, I was out in the driveway at six-thirty that morning, fetching
the newspaper, when my sister-in-law, Christine, who lives twenty-five
miles east of us, in Ventura, wheeled through the gates with her two
children, three dogs, two cats, and a hastily triaged assortment of
possessions crammed into her car. It seemed that a fire had broken out
the previous evening near Santa Paula and spread rapidly southwest to
Ventura, from which she had been evacuated. She stayed a week, until the
evacuation order was lifted, then went back to a house and neighborhood
that had been left untouched and whole, though four hundred and
twenty-seven other structures had burned within the county lines.

What I didn’t understand at that point was how relentless this fire
would prove to be. Over the ensuing days, stoked by Santa Ana winds and
fed with vegetation desiccated by the extended drought that we’ve
suffered through for the past five years, it would creep along the face
of the mountains till it reached us here, on the apocalyptic morning of
December 16th. I was on the roof, wearing a surgical mask and wielding a
garden hose, when a great black cape of smoke enveloped all of Montecito
and whitened everything with ash until you might have mistaken it for
snow but for the unnatural heat. We’d evacuated some days earlier, under
the voluntary order, but I’d returned on the previous day in
anticipation of the predicted high-velocity sundowner winds, hoping to
do what I could to save the house, which is constructed entirely of
redwood and surrounded by dense forest. At ten-thirty, the police were
at the gate, enforcing the newly imposed mandatory evacuation order, and
I drove back up the coast to rejoin my wife, my daughter, and our own
coddled and oblivious pets. In all, we were stuck in a motel room for
ten days, until the order was rescinded and we were able to return home
just in time for Christmas. Disaster averted. Case closed. Or so it

Despite the calm, I vividly recalled “Los Angeles Against the
John McPhee’s hair-raising 1988 essay, in which he wrote of the tenuous
relationship between foothill communities and the mountain ranges that
overhang them, emphasizing the predictable pattern of autumn wildfires
and the debris flows that inevitably follow once the winter rains begin.
(And I had the example of my own 1995 novel, “The Tortilla Curtain,” in
which the climactic action is built around just such a sequence of
events.) So I wasn’t unprepared for what came next—theoretically, that
is. Rain was forecast for the early-morning hours of Tuesday, January
9th, and it was expected to be heavy at times, very heavy. But rain
wasn’t fire, and, like so many of my neighbors, I was suffering from
disaster fatigue after more than a month of uncertainty and dislocation.
As far as actual preparation for the storm—sandbagging, packing the car,
or heeding the new voluntary evacuation order for the zone in which I
live—I wound up doing nothing beyond positioning a couple of rain
barrels under the downspouts, in order to catch the excess for future
use. In fact, I welcomed the rain, which came on Monday night as a long, gentle
misting sacrament that just barely dampened the streets
and shimmered in the leaves of the trees. Feeling celebratory, I walked
down to my favorite watering hole in the Lower Village, and, though I
barely needed an umbrella, I carried one with me anyway, mindful of the

The rain awoke my wife and me at three-thirty the next morning, an
intense hammering rain that seemed to explode all around us. Still, it
was only rain, and I would have drifted back to sleep but for the fact
that the sky was brightly lit to the north, where the mountains lie.
What was it? Lightning, I reasoned, and then my head was on the pillow
and I was asleep. Unfortunately, the source of that light was much more
ominous than a lightning strike. As I was later to discover, the
concentrated rain—as much as 0.54 of an inch in a single five-minute
period, an intensity seen on average just once every two hundred
years—propelled a debris flow down the slopes of the denuded mountains,
the first indication of which was that fiery glow in the sky. A gas main
had been sheared off, and the escaping methane had exploded in flames,
incinerating the houses just below it even as the debris flow tore into
them and raged on past, gathering force and seeking the low ground.
Here’s the irony: if the storm had come before the fire, in November,
when our rainy season typically begins, perhaps there would have been no
fire at all, and certainly any fire that might have arisen would have
been far less extensive, and, of course, had the vegetation not burned,
the root systems of the chaparral community of plants would have
contained or at least minimized any mudflow. But it didn’t happen that
way. November was drier than normal, and December rainfall amounted to
little more than a trace, resulting in the second-driest December on

We woke to a gentle rain and the wail of sirens, too many sirens, sirens
that multiplied one atop the other and kept on multiplying till it
seemed there was no other sound. The electricity was out. There was no
newspaper. Though we were just two blocks from ground zero of the worst
destruction, our property—our block—appeared no different from the night
before, but for the ordinary effects of heavy rainfall, the scattered
branches and palm fronds, dripping trees, runoff in the streets. It
wasn’t until we drove into Santa Barbara for breakfast—and news—that we
began to understand. Or not so much understand as simply be apprised of
what had happened, since understanding connotes a way of reckoning with
a disaster that, as of this writing, has taken the lives of twenty of my
neighbors and left three still unaccounted for, including a two-year-old

And here’s a further irony: the mandatory evacuations in advance of the
storm were for the people living closest to the slopes, where it was
predicted that the worst of the debris flows would occur, but the less
urgent voluntary evacuation warnings were issued to those farther
downslope, who would wind up taking the brunt of the damage. We were
among the lucky ones. Our house, one of the oldest in the community,
sits atop a hill, at the bottom of which, to the east, lies the
streambed of Montecito Creek. Through most of the year, the creek barely
lives up to the name, reduced to a picturesque trickle in a meandering
bed of rock and concrete beneath a canopy of oaks and sycamores, but on
that night, catastrophically, it jumped its banks and swept to the sea,
taking with it everything in its path. Houses vanished, trees were
uprooted like weeds, boulders taller than I pounded through the
watercourses like the bowling balls of titans, and the slurry of mud and
ash rose as high as fifteen feet in some places. A man who lived just
down the street from us was killed, and his teen-age son was swept
three-quarters of a mile down Olive Mill Road and across the freeway to
the beach. And, at the same time, mudslides were inundating the other
watersheds, including San Ysidro Creek, which tore through the Upper

All of this I learned secondhand, through local and national news
sources. The affected areas, including both Villages, were cordoned off
and remain no-entry zones as of this writing. It wasn’t until the sixth
day after the storm that I had an opportunity to tour the devastated
areas in the company of a journalist friend and see the effects for
myself. At the bottom of my street, where it intersects with Olive Mill,
there was a remnant riverbed in the place where once had stood houses
I’d seen every day for twenty-five years. Mudflats stretched off into
the distance. It took me a while to orient myself, all the familiar
landmarks erased in a way that was not only disorienting but profoundly
disturbing. I dwell in the familiar. The familiar allows me to sit at my
desk day after day and reimagine the world. My house was intact,
untouched, and yet here was something else altogether, a thoroughgoing
denial of the familiar.

In her essay “The Wreck of Time,” Annie Dillard speaks of compassion
fatigue in a world in which catastrophe and annihilation come as
regularly as the progression of the days. Her point of reference was the
1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, which killed a hundred and thirty-eight
thousand people and displaced millions. How can we begin to comprehend
the magnitude of that, or of the cascade of disasters before or since,
let alone sympathize? These are just figures, digits, symbols on a page.
We each inhabit a consciousness, and that consciousness gives us the
world and the universe and what we can grasp through the apprehension of
our five senses. But the universe has no consciousness. It just is.
Twenty of my neighbors are dead. Three are missing. That probably
doesn’t mean much to the rest of the world, or, for that matter, to you
who are reading this. For me, though, it’s personal, and I want my
village back.


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