MONTECITO, Calif.- - First came the fire, then the rain, then a mudslide covering roughly 30 square miles carving a path of destruction through neighborhoods. The bone dry conditions leading up to what became the largest fire in California history were concerning.
Alan Rose, Chief Meteorologist at our sister station KEYT, explained, "The rainy season for Santa Barbara and this part of Southern California began back on October 1. We hadn't seen a significant storm all of October and November, through the end of December we'd seen less than a 10th of an inch."
Fast forward to almost a week ahead of the January 9th's rainfall, the National Weather Service alerted about the possibility of a significant event of deadly consequences. Three days prior to the rain, a Flash Flood Watch was issued. Throughout this time period, local fire teams assessed the various scenarios and made the necessary staffing adjustments.
"We were prepositioned with equipment, we had extra equipment, we had a USAR team up from Long Beach here on Monday beforehand, we had extra firefighters on duty we had extra engines," recalled Captain Dave Zaniboni with Santa Barbara County Fire.
"It was pretty quite, to be honest. We had seen a few tenths of an inch of rain in the Santa Barbara area, mostly at night, it was a pretty slow and steady event that was building. Warm front was moving through, the cold front we could see almost like a squall line setting up just after midnight, and watching that move in you could see the intensity ramping up and it hit just after 3:00 in the morning," remembered Rose.
The rainfall totals are not what's shocking but rather the intensity. The city of Montecito recorded more than half an inch of rain in just five minutes. That's greater than a 200-year frequency rainfall!
The creeks that typically allow a channel for runoff to flow quickly became inundated with water and mud. Zaniboni explained, "If the creek is meandering its way down to the beach, the debris flow didn't follow the rules of that creek, it just went straight through these neighborhoods taking the path of least resistance and that was straight downhill."
It was around 3:30 AM that the intense rain arrived and the disastrous events began to unfold. "By five (minutes) to 4:00 AM the water was at least 12 feet going down Hot Springs, not even in our front yard. And I said, on video, thank God it's not in the front yard and within 5 minutes, the boulders came and my cars were washed away," remembered Trina Grokenberger, a Montecito resident who was rescued from the mudslide by firefighters.
"Those first few hours it was really just go where you could, because we couldn't get to everywhere, and just pray and listen for a scream for help to pull someone out of the mud or debris pile," said Zaniboni as he shared his memories of what was going through his mind as he arrived on scene early that Tuesday morning. "We had our lights looking and all we could see were foundations where homes used to be. It was like a battlefield out here. All the gas mains were broken, super loud with hissing. It was surreal. I'll tell you I've been doing this for 33 years, have seen a lot of major fire, a lot of major disasters but what we were looking at that morning, none of us can believe we're looking at."
"Unless you've gone through it, there's no way to describe it. It's traumatic. It's heartbreaking...," Grokenberger stated.
Now the question -- could the Coachella Valley experience a similar disastrous event?
Shane Reichardt, Riverside County Emergency Services Coordinator, explained "That was really, pardon the pun, the perfect storm. They had the massive fires and then within a very short amount of time an extraordinary rain event. Could that happen here? It's really hard to see that happening. We don't have the same topography that they have and our community is different for a lot of different reasons."
The same cold front that brought over two inches of rain to Santa Barbara, brought just shy of an inch and a half to Palm Springs.
Recall past severe weather incidents such as the 2014 flood in La Quinta or the 2015 EF1 tornado in Thermal and it's clear that unique events still occur in our desert.
"I think that it's really important for people to be informed of what their local hazards are and know where they're going to get their information from," stated Reichardt.
Reichardt encourages people to sign up for twitter, regardless if you tweet your own messages because it's a simple tool to receive information quickly from local news, fire, and police.
Here is a list of links to directly follow sources relevant to the Coachella Valley:
When asking Grokenberger what she'd share about the devastation with Coachella Valley residents, she stated "just hug your kids, hug your family, hug your pets and the rest does not matter."