Rescuers describe early rescues during Montecito mudslides

Posted at 6:51 PM, Jan 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-16 20:51:04-05

Rescue crews at the Montecito mudslides described they saw when they first arrived on scene at the Montecito mudslides January 9 during a community meeting Tuesday.

Matt Ferris, the Santa Barbara Fire Department Incidents Operations Chief, first arrived in Montecito just after 3 a.m. He drove down the coast, hitting a wall of water on Highway 101. After he called to shut down the highway, he continued into Montecito. As he drove, he said he saw flashes in the air as burning homes glowed.

He stopped at Sandy Cedar Road, crawled out of a totaled vehicle, and ran the mudslide incident from there.

"I do not know how I made it through that," said Ferris. "It was truly a miracle."

Ferris said ground and air troops were immediately deployed. He said single ground operator made eight trips out mudslide-ravaged neighborhoods, carrying groups of 30 on his vehicle at a time.

Another found a woman standing in the mud with no clothes. Ferris said he took off his uniform and gave it to her, standing with her unclothed in the mud until she was rescued.

Nearly a dozen air crews flew into the Montecito area, despite sky conditions failing to meet the safety requirements to allow them to fly. Air operations staff said crews continued to fly while the helicopter cabins begun to flood with water.

In the first 14 hours, more than 100 air rescues were made, where a firefighter was lowered onto waterways, rooftops and any surface they could reach. Rescuers transported the critically burned and critically injured to Cottage Health Hospital, dropping them off and immediately flying back to the area.

One of the pilots described the incident as one of the most difficult missions he had ever flown.

Ferris said rescuers continually ask about the people they rescued and want to know if they have survived. He repeatedly urged that the responders love their community. 

Responders are now transitioning into recovery mode and are trying to clear areas as fast as possible but warn that many areas are still unsafe to return to.