From the Ashes – Remembering the Thomas Fire and Montecito Mudslides

Five years ago, the Thomas Fire and Montecito Mudslides devastated our community. This season of reflection is a reminder of unity sparked by tragedy.


Milla Hirsch and Ada Green

Five years ago with mountains ablaze and smoke filling the air, residents between Ventura and Santa Bárbara counties in an anxious frenzy evacuated their homes to flee from the Thomas Fire.
The Thomas Fire began on Dec. 4, 2017, and was followed by the Montecito mudslide on Jan. 9. The Thomas Fire burned 281,893 acres and claimed two lives, while the mudslide killed 23 people and damaged or destroyed over 500 structures.
The community got a “White Christmas” of falling ash rather than snowflakes, as the sky seared red instead of blue.
The fear of Santa Ana winds lingers to this day, and the spark of a flame reminds Southern Californians of the destruction they had faced.
The fire was contained, and the mountains cooled down, but it was not the end of tragedy-it was the spark of another.
On Jan. 9 extreme rainfall hit the 805 districts, including the burn scar left by the fire.
It caused the deadliest mudslide-debris flow event in California’s history as the newly barren mountains began to crumble down on Montecito.
Residents scrambled out of the Red Zones and tried to salvage belongings, loading their cars with pets, prized possessions, and photo albums.
The Santa Barbara community still recalls the terror: remembering the honorable first responders, the volunteers of the Bucket Brigade, and brave neighbors.
Five years later, the community planned to gather to honor the 23 lives lost in the annual “Raising Our Light” memorial, but the event had to be canceled due to severe storms reminiscent of the events that took place on Jan. 9.
Another storm hit Montecito, which the National Weather Service called “the most impressive storm since Jan. 2005.”
The harsh weather conditions with evacuation orders acted as a reminder to residents of the mudslides.
The Santa Barbara community remains strong, continues to honor what has been lost, and shows gratitude for all that has been rebuilt.

Nissa Hales: Co-Director of Technology
I lived in Ventura at the time of the Thomas Fire. I remember driving to school with a fire burning along the freeway. A former LBS teacher lost her home in Ventura. I remember going to Target to buy essentials for her and her family since they lost everything. A group of Laguna teachers, parents, and students met on the train platform in SB and Mr. Abrego picked us all up and took us safely to Hope Ranch. After five years, I always think of the two children who perished in the mud flow and were never located.

Siena Wyatt ‘25:
It was a really stressful time because we didn’t know when we would be able to go back home and return to our normal lives. I remember it felt like months and months and months until I finally got to go home. I remember seeing on the TV the news of what was happening in Montecito—all of the houses totally destroyed, all the mud everywhere. It was weird that that’s where I live. I usually see events like this happening on the news, but I wouldn’t have imagined it happening in my town. “My house was the only one on our street that didn’t get flooded.”We have to appreciate what we have because we don’t know what’s going to happen.

Stella Peus ‘27:
The fire and mudslides were extremely traumatizing for 9-year old me. During the mudslides, I remember waking up around 2 in the morning, bawling to my mother, simply because I was scared of the harsh rain. The sky instantly became red due to an explosion in the mountains. We decided to quickly back our bags with our main necessities and flee somewhere safer. Our entire driveway was covered in mud, debris, and even personal items. The debris was about knee-deep, and parts of our white house were stained with mud. After staying in a hotel for two weeks and we were finally able to come home, I ended up finding