The view of the encroaching Thomas Fire from Leadbetter Point, a popular surf break in Santa Barbara. Photo by Morgan Maassen
The view of the encroaching Thomas Fire from Leadbetter Point, a popular surf break in Santa Barbara. Photo by Morgan Maassen

The Flames and the Flood

Making sense of surf and tragedy amid a disastrous season in Southern California

FOLLOWING a historic dry period from March through December of 2017, two fires sparked to life four miles apart, within 30 minutes of each other, in the hills of Ventura County. The ignitions occurred in the early evening of December 4. The flames coincided with unseasonable Santa Ana winds gusting up to 50 miles per hour. The resulting brushfires merged near Santa Paula, Calif., and then made fast progress toward Ventura. That first night hundreds of homes burned and the blaze expanded to encompass 45,000 acres. Two weeks of erratic Santa Anas pushed the inferno west and north into Santa Barbara County, scorching national forest and several coastal towns. Named after Thomas Aquinas College, located near the fire's twin sources, with 281,893 acres burned, the Thomas Fire eventually grew to become the state's largest wildfire on record.

On January 8, four days before the Thomas would be fully contained, the first perceptible rain in months arrived. In other instances, this may have been fortuitous. But the most significant bursts of precipitation were forecast to fall within the burn area. Due to the steep terrain of the Santa Ynez mountains and because the fire had destroyed vegetation that would have held hillsides in place (as well as the fact that wildfires chemically change soil in a way that prevents the earth from retaining water), flash floods and debris flows were expected. Both mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders went out to many residents who had only recently returned from evacuations due to fire. The same steep slopes that brought flames to their doorsteps might also bring slides. But not everybody would heed these latest directives.

Sometime after 3 a.m. on January 9, a debris flow that began across acres of inland terrain followed paths of least resistance, along the Montecito, San Ysidro and Romero creeks in Montecito, but also down neighborhood streets. The flow carried mud, rocks and boulders. It downed trees, bridges and, eventually, 128 homes. Mud subsumed Highway 101 before the flow drained into the Pacific Ocean. Twenty-one people were killed, many of them washed away with their homes. Some of these people were considered missing at the time.

"We're experienced and ready for fire in Santa Barbara," said local surfer and Forest Service firefighter Spencer Gordon, "but we're not so ready for bus-sized boulders coming down the mountain."

The torrential rains in Montecito following the Thomas Fire caused flash floods, mudslides, road closures and 21 fatalities. Photo by Nick Liotta

SOME members of the surfing community worked on the front lines of the disasters
while others were in harm's way. Much of the wreckage wrought by fire and flood ended up in the ocean, so everyone who decided to surf was exposed to the results.

The debris flow damage to the 101 in Montecito blocked traffic, prohibiting Santa Barbara drivers from accessing Rincon, as well as Ventura commuters from going north. A long section of the highway in Montecito looked like a gravy trough as bulldozers scooped buckets of brown muck and dumped it into trucks. Amtrak lines and two ferries out of Ventura became the only coastal transit options.

On January 12, I received a text from a friend, Koby Robertson, in Santa Barbara who said he'd been boating into Rincon. The surf was oddly empty as access was limited. A new, significant swell was expected, and officials announced that Highway 101 would not open as planned. Robertson invited me to join him on his boat. The idea of surfing empty, overhead Rincon contaminated my better judgment and put me over the Grapevine on the road to Bakersfield before heading west and then south on dual lane highways--the long, long way to Santa Barbara. All commercial traffic plied this route as well, and we formed a snaking, impassable train to the coast.

SANTA ANA winds have long tested Southern California surfers. These warm gusts that bloom in the Great Basin are known--with their low humidity and high wind speed--for their ability to drive brush fires to the edges of coastal cities. But they can also provide weeklong offshore winds along a landmass dominated by onshore flow. In the intertidal zone, these winds can transform even average swell into all-time surf.

Many instances have seen peopled lineups within sight of smoke plumes. I once surfed Oceanside with a firefighter friend during a Santa Ana. The swell was solid, the wind perfect. We soon noticed a tower of smoke to the south. My firefighter friend admitted that he wouldn't be checking his phone that day--the surf was too good. To him, the smoke indicated nothing more than work.

A question arises, not just during fire but all disasters: to surf or not, to indulge when neighbors and fellow citizens are losing livelihoods, shelters and more.

One perspective is simply that surfers surf--that's what they do. Surfers paddled out along Long Island and the Jersey shore as the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fell. The beaches of Pensacola were peppered by wave riders even as a tropical storm pushed contaminants from BP's historic oil spill onto the sugar-white sand. Surfers eventually returned to the radioactive coast off Fukushima. Some of those Japanese surfers told me that if you're going to live there, you're going to surf there, because that's what living is--doing what you do. During San Diego's 2003 Cedar Fire, second in size only to the Thomas Fire, the beaches were packed.

The other perspective, that we should not surf--in order to help, to be of use, out of moral obligation, to keep in fidelity with victims--is more complicated.

The twisted remnants of an SUV deposited on a Montecito beach following the mudslides. Photo by Nick Liotta

THE HARBOR was oddly quiet. A University of California, Santa Barbara van driver waited for a ferry called "Condor Express" carrying professors and students from the southeast. The harbor vessels appeared clean enough after the rain. But I'd talked to a surfer named Trevor Gordon who lived on a boat docked there, and he described an eerie scene during the Thomas Fire. Weeks of smoke settled above Santa Barbara and a natural eddy seemed to suspend it there. Gordon said it resembled a reddish, gray fog. Ash fell on the boats like snowflakes. Partially burnt leaves, having traveled from as far away as Ventura, landed on deck. Smoke seeped into Gordon's cabin through vents and window sills despite the tape he'd used to prevent it. Gordon had taken in three cats, refugees from an evacuation. Downtown Santa Barbara was within sight and empty. Businesses were closed. The usual Christmas markets were canceled. Ash blew through the streets. And the fire "was steadily moving westward," Gordon said. "It was projected to go all the way [to downtown Santa Barbara]."

Robertson's boat was called "99 Problems." Observers in the harbor thought the name referred to boat maintenance in general and not the Jay-Z song in specific. Either way it was an apt tag for the moment. Right out of the harbor Robertson asked me to keep an eye out for logs; a collision could damage the hull. It was like keeping an eye out for stars at night--there were inky logs everywhere. After the flash floods, the water was full of surprises. For a time, the ocean surface was glassy and blue, as you might expect along a coast known for its Mediterranean-like beauty. But approaching Hammonds Beach the ocean turned mocha brown. On closer inspection, the water was flecked and marbled with ash. I thought of the sea otters I'd seen offshore in the past, wondering where they might have skittered off to. We passed wide of Montecito, wanting to get to Rincon.

At a distance, nothing seemed amiss on land. The structures on shore looked fine. Satellite photos, published days later, revealed the staggering destruction of homes and property along drainages.

Carpinteria resident Dane Reynolds, riding the same type of stiff winds in Ventura that made that Thomas Fire spread so quickly. Photo by William Sharp

Rounding Rincon Point, Robertson and I saw that its hills were scorched nearly to sea level. Tall palms at the tree farm on the north side of the 101 stood like black candles, the few fronds remaining turned white. It seemed somehow impossible that the upscale houses on the flat tongue of Rincon Point hadn't flared up as well.

I was told there had been a solid, three-day swell once the blaze had moved away from Rincon and into the hills behind Carpinteria. Surfers, of course, couldn't pass up the chance to slide a few on the Queen of the Coast. Flames couldn't be seen from the lineup, but the smoke was heavy.

"It felt like you were surfing under a full moon," said photographer Morgan Maassen of a midday session he had during the swell. The conditions were flawless, but the water was black with ash. Smoke funneled into the atmosphere from the interior brush lands. Surfers wore respirators akin to those found in shaping and glassing bays, or wet towels, scarves and bandanas around their mouths. "I couldn't last an hour and a half," Maassen said. "It felt like my lungs were going to fail."

By the time Robertson motored up to the point in the "99 Problems", the sky was blue. And there were plenty of surfers in the lineup dropping in on each other and rolling over the first pulses of the new swell. It turned out that the northbound lanes of Highway 101 had reopened and surfers from Los Angeles and Orange counties had regained access to Rincon. After watching a few sets of the new swell, we decided to turn around and try our luck in Montecito.

Between the Thomas Fire and the Montecito mudslides, emergency workers of every ilk found themselves on the frontlines in Santa Barbara County for much of the California winter. Photo by Nick Liotta

IF YOU surf the stretch of coast surrounding Montecito, at any break you'll find yourself lining up with this or that mansion. They were some of the most impressive homes I'd ever seen, all with a backdrop of mountains and blue sky. Surfing in Newport, Rhode Island, produces a similar feeling of diminishment in the presence of wealth, but in the East, one shreds on the banks of old money. From the water off Montecito the environs of entertainment moguls ramble as if from the pages of a magazine.

A few days earlier a beach walker stumbled upon a dead bear lying prone on the sand. Its forelegs were raised in a menacing posture. The body was rigid, seeming almost posed. The beach walker took a photo and shared it on social media, mentioning that the corpse appeared to suffer rigor mortis. The shot went viral as commenters discussed the origins of the beast. It seemed obvious to most that the animal had come out of the hills attempting to escape the debris flow. Then a respondent with an eye for taxidermy pointed out that the bear had been stuffed, and that it had likely washed out of a destroyed home. About a week later, another bear appeared in Carpinteria looking much worse for wear. This spurred additional reports of dead bears. Officials, with no shortage of other things to do, pinned it all on the first bear. They said the same animal had been returning on the waves, each time in a different pose.

Nearing a particularly beautiful cobblestone point, we came upon our first fellow boaters. One guy manned the metal skiff while his buddy sat alone in the lineup. Small, well-shaped waves whipped down a point littered with driftwood and kelp. "It's not worth it," hollered the surfer in the boat. Robertson drew closer. The other boater repeated his claim. I figured the kid was bluffing us. They clearly didn't want company. "The water is disgusting," the boater said. It was brown and smelled of petroleum. "And look," the surfer said, "I was going down the line." He lifted an orange, twin keel fish from the boat. It was mangled. "Logs. They're under the surface. You can't see them."

The ocean water was indeed polluted. After the debris flow, bacteria levels jumped off the chart. And, as evidenced by the bear, all manner of things had been relocated from streets and homes. We left the two surfers to their own decisions and made our way up to the next spot west.

Also fronted by dream homes, this wave broke off of a creek mouth and spooled down a shallow cove. The sets were intermittent despite the significant swell in the water. Robertson and I figured the waning tide would help, so we dropped anchor. I was suiting up before I gave conscious thought to an object on the beach: white, twisted metal about the size and shape of a large boulder. It took time to realize the thing must be a car. When Robertson and I jumped into the water I noticed another metal skeleton nearby, which looked to be a piece of a bridge. These items, it appeared, had come down the creek bed. In the lineup we discovered more debris, including one object that Robertson took to calling a "widow maker." It was a large wooden post peppered with nail heads and tethered to a rope below. This allowed the post to swing wide and even disappear as waves moved through, only to reappear after the surge. It was located directly in the takeoff zone. Keeping clear of the widow maker and paddling into this fast-moving wave was a challenge. About the time we figured it out, two surfers appeared way down the beach and made their way toward the point. The coast was so devoid of people that any figures stood out--especially the fireman who later arrived to inspect the car wreck. It dawned on me that this spot, Fernald Point, was ground zero for the debris flow. The firefighter could have very well been looking for the missing.

With swell in the water and smoke int he air, Rincon still managed to look inviting amid the chaos. Photo by Nick Liotta

THE PROXIMITY of all of these natural forces is something I would never have understood without coming here. Spencer Gordon, Trevor's brother, worked as a seasonal "Hotshot"--a wildland firefighter for the Forest Service. This meant that from May through November, he would travel nationally to wherever he was needed, always trying to figure out new territory as quickly as possible to effectively fight the fires. In December, days after the Thomas Fire sparked to life, Gordon received a call from a colleague asking if he wanted to join a handcrew there. Gordon wanted the work, especially because he knew he'd be helping out his own neighbors. He knew this landscape intimately. He cut lines off of trails he ran. He watched fire come up familiar streets. "I know exactly where that drainage goes," he remembered, "and it goes directly to my good buddy's house." Gordon called the friend and left a message: "If I were you, I wouldn't be there right now."

Gordon said that the vibe in Santa Barbara felt gloomy afterward. But he admitted that he would have been out at Rincon with his brother and Maassen and the others, had he been free.

I drove back toward Bakersfield that evening feeling a little bit, I don't know, polluted; more so for having surfed in foul water, but also for having been a looky-loo, a sightseer amid disaster. But I realized also that local surfers weren't necessarily making moral decisions amid these disasters. They were just living and surfing as the opportunity allowed. That proximity caused me to learn what was going on with regular surfers at that time. They weren't a hedonistic tribe awaiting prime conditions, but simply members of their communities--taking care of priorities, helping neighbors, surfing when they could, or when they felt like it was worth it.

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