Maeve Juarez was perched in the worst possible place, but she had no idea. In the middle of the night, the Montecito Fire Department supervisor sat in her truck waiting for the incoming rainstorm.
What she didn’t know was that a massive mudslide was about to trigger a series of events that would very nearly kill her and take the lives of nearly two dozen people. The disaster would force Juarez to make tough choices that may have ultimately saved countless lives.
The Thomas Fire, which devastated swaths of Southern California in December 2017, would go down as the largest blaze in the state’s history at the time. It destroyed some 1,000 structures, including 10 homes in Montecito, the rural but ritzy coastal town nestled in a Santa Barbara County hillside, about 90 miles north of Los Angeles.
The fire also burned through the root systems of trees and plants — a botanical mesh that, before the fire, held the soil in place on the slopes above town. But now this loosened earth was getting saturated with a massive amount of rain in a little bit of time. There was nothing to keep the mud from sliding down hill.
“I myself spent 29 days on the Thomas Fire. I was really looking forward to the rain coming,” Juarez said. “I came and parked on the bridge and shut the truck off.”
That bridge, which was several feet above what used to be a small creek, also ran above a natural gas pipeline. As the rain began to fall, Juarez was happy — fire season was finally coming to an end. She says no one thought the rain was going to be a problem.
“We were just thinking we were going to be up all night delivering sandbags,” Juarez said. But she also knew the people who live in Montecito had natural disaster fatigue.
“The community had already been evacuated for a little over a week because of the Thomas Fire,” Juarez recalled. “It was Christmas time. It was the holidays. People were really upset to leave their homes.”
Earlier in the day, she met a mother in a different part of town who was filling up sandbags with her daughters. Sitting on the bridge, she started to worry about the woman’s property getting flooded. Spontaneously, Juarez decided to go check on her.
Less than a minute later, as Juarez recalls, a mountain of mud rumbled downhill and severed the gas line, which exploded and destroyed the bridge.
At the time, she had no idea what had happened. But if she had stayed on the bridge she would have likely died in the explosion.
As she drove away, the fountain of flame behind her was intense.
“It (looked) like 2 o’clock in the afternoon it was so bright. It was probably a thousand-foot flame in length,” Juarez said. “Some people that I spoke to said that they woke up and thought that they overslept — that it was noon because it was so bright outside.”
But before she could focus on the fire, she had to get control of her truck.
“As I was turning onto the main street was when the deluge came down — water, boulders and everything started to come down the street and it swept my truck down,” Juarez said.
There was so much going on that she said she doesn’t remember the sound of the explosion.
“I didn’t have control of the vehicle and knew I just needed to pull into a driveway so that I could get back up to the fire.”
She headed back up the road on foot. Other vehicles were now coming down the street. “People were yelling things out the window about fire and I could hear someone saying, ‘My house exploded.'”
After accidentally dropping her radio in the water, Juarez returned to her truck and decided to drive up the street.
“Power lines were down. There were massive boulders. There were a ton of vehicles — vehicles that had been abandoned, vehicles that were running,” Juarez said. These roadblocks combined with knee-high water, stopped her from being able to drive too far.
Then, an engine arrived which had been pre-staged in the neighborhood. Juarez went into action, sending the engine to assess the fire nearby. Next, she directed another firefighter to use her truck to shuttle people to safety.
After firefighters determined the nearby flames were from a gas fire and wouldn’t die easily, she then sent those same firefighters to start knocking on doors to looking for people who needed help.
‘Everything was gone’
“The first house they came to they found two burn victims in the house that had jumped out of their house when it caught on fire … and crawled into another home,” Juarez recounted. “That’s where my firefighters found them. I asked them to bring them to my vehicle.”
It was a husband and wife, both burned and covered in mud. The wife, who was naked, was going into shock.
“I pulled my pants off and put those on her. Ripped my shirt off, my sweatshirt — put those on her,” Juarez said. “I just wanted to give her the warm clothes that I had to heat her up as quickly as I possibly could.”
Juarez also wanted to get the couple out quickly. As she tried to drive out of the neighborhood, that’s when she realized the situation was worse than she thought.
“I went to turn to the west and the whole neighborhood was gone,” Juarez said, remembering how boulders decimated entire homes. “It didn’t make sense. There were no homes left, just gone. You couldn’t see anything of a house. Everything was gone. I mean the road was gone. There was nothing left. It was just a river in this neighborhood.”
They were cut off to the east as well. She radioed in for a helicopter to rescue the couple but was told that aircraft were grounded because of the heavy rain. Then the Coast Guard — equipped to fly in these conditions — agreed to get them out. Since the woman couldn’t walk, Juarez carried her on her back a couple of hundred feet to the helicopter.
All along, Juarez — who spent 18 years working for the U.S. Forest Service, most recently as a battalion chief — was managing resources in other areas of the disaster as part of her supervisor duties. She had three pages of notes of people trapped and people with injuries to whom she was sending help.
As soon as the helicopter took off, Juarez headed off to the next call.
‘…I just started hearing people yelling for help…’
A man stopped her to tell her about another resident with a broken leg. She had gotten the call but thought she couldn’t get anyone to him. But this man knew a back way into the neighborhood.
“When I got out of the truck, I just started hearing people yelling for help,” she recalled.
This is when it sunk in for Juarez that they were dealing with something larger than just structure fires. She called her resources to this neighborhood and asked operations to send every helicopter with a hoist.
“I knew I had a lot of multiple calls coming in for gas leaks,” Juarez said. Afraid of another explosion, she directed her firefighters to evacuate residents to a nearby golf course. “We just tried to tell as many people as we could to get to rooftops so that we could hoist them out.”
The conditions were making rescue attempts difficult. The mud was waist-high on Juarez and the water was rushing. She asked her firefighters to put on their personal protective flotation devices before they crossed a creek to get into this neighborhood.
“The weather service said that another storm was coming,” Juarez said. “I had to make the decision to pull everybody out of there and get them to safety.”
Two of her firefighters were still working to rescue a family; she asked the helicopter to take those first responders out as well.
Juarez climbed on a rooftop, afraid the hillsides were going to come down again.
“I thought for sure it was coming. I thought for sure it was happening again and I didn’t think I was going to make it in my truck,” she recalled. “I wanted to be the last one out. I sent the engine. I sent the patrol out.”
After the family and firefighters were airlifted out, Juarez headed back to her truck. As she was driving back to the golf course, she got a text from a friend.
The mother of the family they had just lifted out with her firefighters was still in the house.
Juarez drove back to the house in the rain. “I called her name and I tried to get to her,” Juarez said. “There were several moments that I was driving down the street telling myself I probably shouldn’t be driving in here. But I hope that someone would do that for me. So, I felt like I had to do it for her.”
The woman didn’t survive.
“She definitely is one of the tougher ones that stuck with me for sure because I really wanted to find her,” Juarez said, her voice softened.
A year later, the memories are still fresh
In all, 23 people died in the mudslide that relentlessly cascaded down the hillside, through the town, across the 101 highway and into the Pacific Ocean.
“There were people stranded on the 101 in their vehicles that we couldn’t get to for hours,” said California Highway Patrol Captain Cindy Pontes.
The mud was above the center divider on the highway which was shut down for 12 days while crews worked around the clock to clear the roadway.
While the rescues were happening, Pontes was afraid they were going to lose an officer or a firefighter.
“There were other first responders that were caught in debris flows and they made it through,” Pontes said. “I don’t know how. They didn’t have control of their vehicles.”
“I don’t know how any of us walked away,” Juarez said about Montecito Fire. “I mean no one in the department even had a paper cut.”
Juarez continued to work for some 36 hours, most of that time unaware that the bridge she had been on before the disaster began was demolished in the explosion.
Despite all she did and all the people she helped save, Juarez remains humble about her efforts. “I just came to work that day and that’s not a normal every day thing but that’s something that we, you know, we anticipate,” she said.
Pontes has no doubt Juarez is a hero. “She was absolutely selfless, put her life on the line for others and physically gave the shirt off her back to one of the victims that was burned,” Pontes said. “She went above and beyond the call of duty.”
More than a year later, California is having a much wetter winter than usual and every time a storm hits, Juarez does think back to the mudslide. “After you go through something like that, the rain is completely different for you,” she said. “You hear the pitter patter on the roof and you think, ‘Is it going to happen again?'”
But now the threat is all too fresh in the town’s collective memory so Santa Barbara County officials, including Juarez, keep their eyes on the creeks and the debris basins, making sure the water is moving through them unobstructed.
“The new normal in Montecito is to have heavy equipment parked anywhere there’s a waterway,” Juarez explained. “We’re all kind of on watch that we might need to go dig that area out to clear anything out so that the waters can flow properly.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of people who perished in the mudslides.