MONTECITO, Calif. — Hannah Troy knew better. But she was tired, as were many here after the warnings, the evacuations, the close calls and the worry of recent weeks.
Just in the past month, the film consultant, along with her pair of dogs, had spent two nights in a Red Cross shelter, a night in her minivan, and two weeks with a friend in Paso Robles, about 100 miles north on the now-blocked Highway 101. The Thomas Fire had forced her from home. The rainstorm that swept into Santa Barbara this week would not.
So when the voluntary evacuation advisory was issued for her neighborhood in this wealthy enclave just south of Santa Barbara, she packed a “go bag” and then ignored the warning. Some neighbors did the same, weary, too, and wondering if the rains could really be as dangerous as the historic fire they had just escaped.
“I ignored that inner voice, which I never do,” Troy recalled Thursday from another Red Cross shelter, this one at Santa Barbara City College, which has been sanctuary for as many as 58 people since Tuesday, when the mountains gave way above Montecito. “But it just goes to show you, don’t do that.”
Many others here ignored the same inner voice, finely tuned over weeks, months and in some cases lifetimes of living in a place where fires, floods and earthquakes are always a possibility, especially as the climate changes in a way that emphasizes the extremes.
The mudslides killed at least 17 people, ages 3 to 89. The dead, which include four children, were all from Montecito. Their cause of death was listed as “multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides due to recent wildfire,” according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.
Authorities had eight active missing-person investigations, and an additional 35 people were reported missing by friends and relatives. The sheriff’s department has found many people who were initially reported missing, he said. Some were in the hospitals and others were simply out of touch with their friends or family.
Authorities imposed a “mandatory evacuation zone” around large portions of Montecito on Thursday night, warning residents that they should prepare to be away from their homes for as long as two weeks. They said pedestrian and bike traffic in the area was getting in the way of equipment used for clearing the area and rescue efforts.
“We understand that you’re curious. However, you being in this area is impeding the cleanup crews and the rescue efforts,” said Cindy Pontes, a captain with the California Highway Patrol.
An estimated 65 homes were destroyed with hundreds of others damaged. Emergency crews continued Thursday to rescue residents, at times by helicopter, from some of Montecito’s still-impassable neighborhoods.
A wet last winter gave way to a dry summer here and in many parts of California. When the rain did not return this winter, fire season feasted on the heavy growth that the previous winter had fueled and that had turned to tinder in the dry recent months.
Troy and about 16,000 other residents of Santa Barbara County were forced to evacuate their homes in December when the Thomas Fire burned the largest area of any in state history. Some remained in hotels and family guest rooms or on friends’ sofas for more than a week, feeling like holiday burdens or worrying about unexpected housing bills.
On Monday, emergency officials again told residents of much of Montecito to leave. Heavy rains were expected, and the loose, fire-charred hillsides above the area would likely wash away, downhill from the Santa Ynez Mountains to the Pacific Ocean with Montecito in between.
The predicted happened. As the flooding began, emergency officials sent out cellphone alerts. Some had left, many hadn’t — and then scrambled to do so after the opportunity had passed.
“We woke up with rain and heard this huge rumble,” said David Atkinson, 73, who lives with his wife, Cathy, on Riven Rock Road, directly beneath some of the most scorched hillsides. “The whole house shook.”
Their home sustained no major damage. But when they went outside early Tuesday to survey the scene, they found that massive boulders had been pushed into the middle of the road.
Unable to drive, they have been confined to their neighborhood ever since, most of the time without power or water. Atkinson said they’ve been using pool water for their toilets and to shave.
Cathy Atkinson, 71, said she had been receiving updates on the situation through daily phone calls from her daughter, who lives in Geneva.
“We just got our electricity, so now we’re listening to NPR,” she said.
Marshall Miller and his wife, Amy, heeded the advisory, leaving their house in a voluntary evacuation zone early Monday. The reason: Amy is pregnant with the couple’s second child, and her due date is less than a week away.
“We’re sort of slow-moving now,” said Miller, 40, a farmer, who added that the couple were waiting out the rescue and recovery at his brother’s house.
Three days after evacuating, the couple had no idea whether their house was still standing. Miller has tried to return, but the area remained closed off.
“It’s a true unknown,” he said.
Miller knew people who stayed, and for some of them, what he called “evacuation fatigue” influenced their decision.
“It was hard on people to be gone from their home as long as they were prior to Christmas,” he said. “I think we all thought, ‘Well, it’s a new year; I’ve left that stuff behind us.’”
Troy lives with her sister and brother-in-law, who, like her, were ready to leave but then decided against it. Bags were packed, the car was full of fuel.
But when the storm hit, she was “just exhausted,” she said. All of them fell asleep Monday night with a light rain falling.
At 3:30 a.m., they woke to a combination of pouring rain and a flash-flood warning alert blaring on a cellphone. Troy looked out the window, and the sky was glowing orange.
“It didn’t make sense,” she said. “The sky was orange like there was another big fire, but in that rain?”
The glow turned out to be a gas fire set off by the mudslide. Troy went outside and shoved the gate open through heavy mud. She trudged up the driveway to where she had parked her Toyota Sienna minivan on the street.
The car was gone, her “go bag” in it. Her brother-in-law’s car had been swept away, too. Troy’s sister was loading her own dogs into her minivan when Troy told her to stop and get inside.
Troy changed out of her mud-caked clothes and exchanged her Crocs for boots.
She soon got another phone alert, this one from the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management. It used a phrase she hadn’t heard before: “shelter in place.”
They waited inside. Troy tried to meditate. The sun came up.
At dawn, she went outside. The mud was knee-deep. It was raining, but the storm’s roar had gone silent.
There were firefighters on her street, and they told Troy to wait inside while they evacuated the elderly and infirm from the neighborhood. The firefighters returned later and helped Troy, her sister and brother-in-law, carrying dogs through the mud.
A neighbor with a Range Rover gave them a ride through the worst of it, and they walked to the nearby home a volunteer with the Montecito emergency response group.
From there, National Guard vehicles took the evacuees to a shopping center in central Montecito, where city buses shuttled them to the Red Cross shelter at Santa Barbara City College. She has a cot and cages for her dogs, and she plans to stay until she feels “some guidance to move on.”
“Everything right now is rumor,” she said.
Troy doesn’t blame the county for keeping her neighborhood under only a voluntary evacuation advisory until it was too late to get out — only herself.
“I should have evacuated,” she said.
Biasotti and Ufberg reported from Montecito and Santa Barbara. Wilson reported from Washington. Mark Berman and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.