January 28, 2023

NPR’s Juana Summers speaks with Scott Safechuck, a Santa Barbara County Fire Department official, on the cleanup underway as the county recovers from days of brutal storms and prepares for more ahead.



JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A few parts of California are finally getting a break from the devastating storms, giving rescue crews a chance to catch up. North of Santa Barbara, an air rescue team took advantage of clear and sunny sky.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER FLYING OVERHEAD)

SUMMERS: In a video posted by the county fire department, a helicopter airlifted a 79-year-old man from his house after a broken levee swamped his and more than a dozen other homes. Elsewhere in the county, a fire construction crew cleared a debris-covered road, which had trapped hundreds of people at a campsite. For more on those recovery efforts, we’ve got Scott Safechuck on the line. He’s the public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. Scott, welcome.

SCOTT SAFECHUCK: Well, thank you for having me on the show.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. To start, could you just share a few details about what the last 24 hours have been like for you and the members of that department?

SAFECHUCK: Yeah, if I could go back maybe just a day before that – maybe the last 72 hours. We were expecting a deluge of rainfall coming into this area, and we are no stranger to the effects of what happens when we have water runoff with these in our county. We have historical fire history here. We have the – this is just – we just reached the five-year anniversary of the Montecito debris flow. And so we have a rich history in tragic fires and mudflows in this area.

So building up to this event of rainfall coming in, it was still kind of something to wait and see how – what this kind of rain was going to be like. And we had historical rainfall within 24 hours. So within the last day, we’ve been having some – the water’s been subsiding, finding its way to the ocean and reducing the flood levels in the streets that we have around here. But during that time, it was – we had over 400 incidents within a 36-hour period. We had up to almost 15 inches of rain in the…

SUMMERS: Wow.

SAFECHUCK: …Foothills that are 4,000 feet right above the communities below of – City of Santa Barbara, parts of Montecito and Carpinteria, where we had this debris flow in the past. So we had – it was all hands on deck for the different fire department agencies that we have in this county. We have a incident management team that is made up of all of these people.

SUMMERS: Yeah. And Scott, if I could just ask – what is your top priority for cleanup during a little bit of a lull in the storm system?

SAFECHUCK: Yeah, well, we want to make sure that we can get the thoroughfares open, that we can get people back into their residence. Yesterday, we lifted our evacuation orders, and people were able to get back into their houses. For the people that have flooded houses or damaged houses, they’re – it’s going to take a little longer for them.

SUMMERS: You alluded to the fact that, as we’ve heard, some roads and highways in the county have been flooded or covered in debris. Are there still more roads that need to be cleared?

SAFECHUCK: There are some roads that need to be cleared and repaired. Some of the thoroughfares through Montecito and Santa Barbara have been damaged, and it’s going to take some time to fix those.

SUMMERS: With some areas being more accessible than others, how is coordination working right now with other counties across the state, who I would imagine are seeking similar assistance to folks in Santa Barbara?

SAFECHUCK: You know, we have a great mutual aid system within the state ’cause we’re so in tune with working with each other. We had people come in to assist us from LA County, Ventura County, and from San Luis Obispo. And so we work, really, together to help each other in times of needs because we are going to need help, and so we return those – assistance to them as well.

SUMMERS: We’ve got about a minute left here…

SAFECHUCK: Yeah.

SUMMERS: I understand that there is more rain in the forecast this weekend. What is your biggest concern as we look forward?

SAFECHUCK: Well, we – it’s really what Mother Nature is going to give us. We’re hoping that the weather isn’t what it is – what it was like the last couple of days. It does look more promising to us, and I don’t see it being an effect like we’ve had in the last couple of days. So we’re thankful for that.

SUMMERS: Very quickly, just one word of advice for people…

SAFECHUCK: Yeah.

SUMMERS: …In California as they prepare for the next round of storms – what would you tell them?

SAFECHUCK: Yeah. When people are told to evacuate, and it’s a warning, pay attention to that. And when it’s an order, leave.

SUMMERS: Scott Safechuck is the public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. Scott, thank you for your time.

SAFECHUCK: Thank you.

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