MONTECITO, Calif. – Just weeks after returning to homes threatened by one of the worst wildfires in California history, hundreds of residents of Montecito, an upscale enclave of the wealthy and famous, found themselves in another life-or-death situation.
Heavy rains that brought mud, huge boulders and other debris roaring down hillsides stripped bare by last month’s wildfire flattened at least 100 houses, killed at least 17 people and had hundreds more fleeing for their lives.
Here are some of their stories:
AN OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST’S NARROW ESCAPE
When fire threatened their Montecito home last month, Jeff Farrell and his wife, Gabrielle, fled while their son stayed behind to watch over the family home, which survived the flames.
When a voluntary evacuation order was issued for their neighborhood ahead of Tuesday’s devastating storm, however, the 81-year-old Farrell, who won two gold medals in swimming at the 1960 Olympics, decided to stay put this time with his 71-year-old wife.
"There was evacuation fatigue from the fire," their son Marco Farrell said. "I would have preferred for them to leave and in hindsight we should have left. I don’t know how I got lulled."
When he went outside to check things in the pouring rain before dawn Tuesday, the real estate agent said he heard the rumblings of an approaching flash flood.
He quickly ran back inside to warn his parents, getting there about a minute before a boulder crashed through the kitchen door. It would be followed by a debris flow that quickly trapped the family in thigh-high mud.
After going over various escape plans, the family decided it was best to wait things out until the debris flow settled. When it did they climbed out of their home of 40 years with their three-legged dog, Lucas, and were rescued by a passing firetruck.
Asked what he’d do if his family is ever the recipient of another voluntary evacuation order, Marco Farrell’s response was succinct: "Definitely go."
DEVASTATION IN A TOWN WHERE EVERYONE KNOWS EACH OTHER
Jennifer Markham couldn’t keep the tears from flowing as the 43-year-old stay-at-home mom and her kids struggled through mud and debris Wednesday, trying to get back to their Montecito home.
"We totally thought we were out of the woods," said Markham whose home survived last month’s wildfire. "I was frozen yesterday morning thinking, ‘This is a million times worse than that fire ever was.’"
Her home survived the mudslide as well, but 100 or more others didn’t and at least 17 people lost their lives in a town so small that Markham said "everyone knows somebody that this happened to."
"The devastation and number of families lost," she said, crying. "Everybody was so prepared for the fire. Nobody anticipated this. Never. Not even close."
SAFE BUT TRAPPED WITH NO WAY BACK
A last-minute decision to take in a punk rock concert in Los Angeles kept Justin Deckard and Alyssa Saldana safely away from the pounding storm that wreaked death and devastation, but left them trapped in their car when they tried to return to the University of California, Santa Barbara, for final exams.
Deckard, 19, and Saldana, 18, spent much of Wednesday nervously pacing outside that parked car as traffic backed up for miles in the city of Carpinteria, south of Santa Barbara. The devastating storm had triggered mudslides that turned Highway 101, the main route into Santa Barbara from Los Angeles, into a raging river of mud and debris, closing it in both directions until at least Monday.
"We did this very spontaneously, not thinking about the storm" Deckard said of the trip to Los Angeles.
The couple had resigned themselves to sleeping in their car until a former professor invited them to his home in Ventura. Now their main worry was how they would get back to school in time for this week’s finals.
Another couple, Steve and Rita Fisk, had been taking the scenic coastal route home to Oregon when they became marooned in Carpinteria. The couple, on the road in their RV since before the holidays, were contemplating trying to find an inland route back.
"We’re retired so we’re in no rush," said Steve Fisk. "We feel terrible for everyone who lost their homes."
Associated Press Writers Frank Baker and Amanda Lee Myers contributed to this story from Los Angeles. Rogers reported from Los Angeles.