Santa Maria firefighter reflects on the 100+ rescues his crew ma - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

Santa Maria firefighter reflects on the 100+ rescues his crew made during Montecito mudslide

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A crew of six Santa Maria firefighters is credited with pulling out and rescuing more than 175 people from the Montecito mudslide.

"To say it was chaotic is an understatement. It was very challenging and it was nonstop for six hours," said Capt. Anthony Morales, Santa Maria Fire Department. "As soon as we made our first right hand turn, we traveled down the street, we were just taken aback by the destruction. Power lines were down, we heard gas leaking, and we were frozen for a moment."

The crew included Morales, Engineer Clint McIntosh and Engineer Nick LaMonica from Station 1 and Capt. Pat Youngern, Engineer Derek McLeod and Firefighter Evan Hamaker from Station 2.

These first responders say they'd never trained for something like the destruction in Montecito. 

"We train for earthquakes, swift water rescues, other types of disasters," Morales said. "We have never performed a drill with a mudslide. We have never prepared for this."

Regardless of the lack of training, first responders from across the state dug their boots into the mud and went to work to save the hundreds of victims trapped in the mud.
"We had children, elderly people, dogs, cats," Morales told KSBY News. "We started just grabbing people that we could find and making our way to their homes and throwing them in the back of our stake bed pickup."

Santa Maria firefighters help guide mudslide victims through the debris on Jan. 9. (Photo courtesy Santa Maria Fire Dept.)

They transported masses of victims to a safe zone area away from the devastation.

"There was a lot of destruction," he said. "We were sifting through homes, mud, things that we never trained for, just doing it on the fly, just trying to remove debris piles with our hands to try to find missing people."

Mentally, physically, emotionally, this group of firefighters was all in.

"It can take a toll on people. In the fire service, we are dealing with post-traumatic stress injury right now," Morales said. "We are losing more firefighters today to suicide than we are in the actual line of duty situations, so it's a problem."

With suicide rates among U.S. first responders at record highs, there is a debate about changing the name post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI) in order to help reduce stigma, be more accurate, hopeful, and honorable.

The Santa Maria Fire Department is trying to be proactive about retaining counseling services after incidents and is working to formulate a new program within the department for mental health services. Firefighters say there were informal group situations offered by licensed therapists at the Earl Warren Showgrounds each day during the incident.

"It was needed and we are looking at making it a common practice," Morales said.

A regional task force team made up of fire crews from the Lompoc Fire Department, Vandenberg Fire Department, Santa Barbara City Fire Department, Santa Barbara County Fire Department, and Santa Maria Fire Department worked together to make more than 800 rescues total.

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