Fire and Flood in Montecito

By James Buckley   |   January 11, 2018
Many, if not most, of the modest homes on both sides of Olive Mill Road from Casa Dorinda to Coast Village Road have been partially or completely destroyed

It was a double whammy. First the fire, and then came the flood. And, in this case, it wasn’t so much a “flood” as a debris-laden runoff from the denuded hills above Montecito. The flow of boulders, mud, and timber that came crashing down, crafted a direct route from the burn area to the ocean, avoiding what had been creek beds and instead creating a large swath of destruction as it headed for the sea, rumbling down both San Ysidro and Olive Mill roads and pouring over Highway 101, closing it to traffic through Montecito.

Despite the trauma and the loss of his home, Bill Horstman kept his spirits up


The debris flow caused the death of at least thirteen people (MFD chief Chip Hickman says the count will likely be higher, as 25 people are as of this writing unaccounted for), and the destruction of a great number of homes, garages, outbuildings, property, and vehicles of all kinds.

The chaos closed Coast Village Road.


Navigating my way down to Coast Village Road from Middle Road (where I live), I got as far as Coldwell Banker just off Olive Mill Road. Inside the dark real estate office (electricity was out) was Bill Horstman, unshaven and bruised but in good spirits, wearing a borrowed Montecito Inn bathrobe; his house at 112 Olive Mill Road was severely impacted and will likely have to be torn down and completely rebuilt.

“At about four o’clock in the morning,” he recounts, “I was standing up to my knees in mud. About a half-hour later, my wife, Virgie, and I couldn’t open our door to get out, but we flashed our flashlights through the sliding door and a couple of rescue guys came around [in search of victims]. The bed in a guest room had slipped and crashed through the glass door and they got us out through there.”

Virgie recalls that, ” I don’t go to bed until three, four in the morning; that’s when it broke out. I had to wake my husband up, and I said, ‘Honey, something is wrong.’ So, I went into the bedroom, and I heard the water and said, ‘We’d better get going.’ I thought it was the end of me and my husband.” 

Two more of those affected are Jeff Farrell, an Olympic gold-medalist in the 1960 Rome Olympics, along with his wife, Gabrielle. “I was awakened,” Jeff recounts, “and my wife and [my son] Marco were yelling, ‘Get out of bed. Get going.’ The water was up above my knees. I grabbed my shoes beside the bed, dropped one, and was never able to find it. I got out there, holding the dog and wondering what we were going to do.” Fortunately, Marco and Gabrielle had hailed a rescue truck, and they slowly got out to the truck in the street.

Cars were tossed around like so many toys as the wall of mud and debris roared down Olive Mill Road and spilled over onto Coast Village Road
Motorists trying to make their way north along Highway 101 were stymied by debris that lay across the Olive Mill Road exit

Marcohas been documented the fire and predicting how bad things could get on his Pacific Weather Watch Facebook page; it has a couple thousand followers. “He studies it very carefully and prepares things,” Jeff reports.

Virgie Horstman says the roaring mudslide traveling at highway speeds made her realize she and her husband, Bill, had to act quickly

Gabrielle woke up around 2:30 on the morning of Tuesday, January 9, and there was something that made her say to herself, “This is not good,” so she texted Marco, ‘Are you in or out?’ and told him she wanted him to be inside the house.

“After four or five texts,” she says, “he did not answer,” so she got up and realized he was sleeping on the other side of the house, so she went back to bed. But then, a “red glow” in the bedroom frightened her. She said to herself, “This is not normal,” just before the house lost electricity. There was a fire somewhere in the neighborhood. “The glow was so ominous,” she recalls.

That “glow” was caused by homes in the nearby enclave behind Santa Tomas Lane, set on fire by an exploding transformer. By then, Mark, a friend of Marco, was outside with a flashlight yelling, ‘Get out of here. Get out! Flash flood coming your way!’ Mark had heard the noise of the oncoming disaster; “It’s a noise I’ll never forget,” Gabrielle says.

“So, I got Marco and said, ‘Go and wake up Dad.’ I went outside to see what was happening and the kitchen door burst open. A trunk of a tree broke the kitchen door. Our dining room table and kitchen table, along with a sofa, were pushed into another room by the mud.”

They had prepared all the things they wanted to save when evacuated during the threat of the Thomas Fire but had put everything back and, since they were not in the mandatory evacuation zone, felt reasonably safe. Jeff says he lost all the paintings he had in his garage and in his studio. Some were quite valuable.

“When I was trying to get out of the bedroom,” Jeff relates, “I thought, ‘What else do I need? Should I get the Olympic medals? Nah,’ I told myself, so they are buried someplace in all that mud.”

The larger estates along Olive Mill didn’t escape the damage either

Other refugees taking shelter at Coldwell Banker included Carolene Tacconelli, who, along with her daughter, Allessandra, walked out in the middle of the night along Eleven Oaks Lane and came through the opening behind CVS to escape the flood. “The light from the fire lit up the entire area,” she says, adding, “then I heard this [horrific] sound and wondered, ‘What is that?’ I got up on a chair and looked out at Olive Mill and cars and things were just flying by. I yelled at my daughter to ‘get up and get out… now.'”

For the next few days, perhaps even the next week, Highway 101 will be closed to through traffic, as will train service to and from Santa Barbara. If you really need to get south, the best option until 101 is back in service, will be the shuttle Condor Express has initiated from Sea Landing on Cabrillo Boulevard. The Condor Express, in concert with Island Packers in Ventura, will be making regular trips up and down the coast at a modest $32.50 each way.

The ongoing cleanup will take many weeks. Coast Village Road will go back to being the center of nightlife – or at least what passes as “nightlife” in Montecito, as things are often preternaturally quiet after, say, 10 pm – and business will get back to normal.



Highway 101 should be open to through traffic by the time you read this, as will train service to and from Santa Barbara. During the 101 shutdown, Santa Barbara’s Condor Express, in concert with Island Packers in Ventura, made regular trips up and down the coast at a modest $32.50 each way. For a number of days, that was the only reliable way to get in and out of Santa Barbara if one were heading south.

The ongoing cleanup will take many weeks, but in a short time, Coast Village Road will go back to being the center of nightlife – or at least what passes as “nightlife” in Montecito, as things are often preternaturally quiet after, say, 10 pm – and business will get back to normal.


Montecito’s upper village will spring back to life too; Pierre Lafond will return to its role as a natural meeting ground for friends and neighbors; Tecolote Bookshop, the U.S. Post Office, and Village Hardware, along with the library and banks and the restaurants across the way, will fill with people doing their business and saying their hellos.

But, the deaths and destruction of the past week will have left an indelible scar on the memories of those who’ve lost loved ones, friends, acquaintances, homes, and possessions that will take a lifetime to heal.


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