A group of City officials and residents gathered for a town hall at Parque de los Ninos on Saturday to discuss issues related to last month’s Loma Fire, which scorched about nine acres of hillside on the lower West Side.
The event, organized by Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez and Mayor Cathy Murillo, informed local residents about the use of emergency notifications, efforts for hillside stabilization and disaster preparedness measures.
In the aftermath of the Loma Fire, many lower West Side residents voiced concerns about the lack of emergency notification sent out to alert residents of whether or not to evacuate.
Officials addressed these concerns during Saturday’s town hall, explaining that because the fire was moving uphill, firefighters and law enforcement focused their attention on the top of the hill as opposed to residents and structures in the surrounding area. Interim Santa Barbara Police Chief Bernard Melekian said looking back now, he understands that it could have been helpful to alert residents on the lower West Side that they were not in imminent danger.
“One of the lessons learned, I think, that we would take away from this was that we needed to message the people who lived down along Wentworth (Avenue) and down in this area here,” Chief Malekian said Saturday. “At the Incident Command, we knew where the fire was going, but in retrospect, the people who live down here would have no way to know that, and that’s one of the issues that we’re looking at.”
During the event, residents heard an update from Santa Barbara Fire Chief Chris Mailes, who gave an overview of what occurred the night of the Loma Fire. He said that on that night, 50 mile per hour winds were hitting the hillside in “perfect alignment”, and when this happens, fire can spread 16 to 20 times faster uphill when propelled by strong wind speeds.
Seeing this unfold, Chief Mailes said the firefighters knew the fire would rush to the top of the hill, explaining that this is the reason why they rushed about 11 fire engines to the top of the hill to quell the flames. As the fire quickly spread, Chief Mailes said firefighters and law enforcement officers used the “tried and true” method of knocking on doors to alert residents of the situation, and no emergency notification was sent out.
Town hall attendees also heard from Josh Haggemark, the public works director, on the status of hillside stabilization. Mr. Haggemark assured residents that the hillside “does not have any potential of a Montecito debris flow,” adding that should there be some kind of mudslide, it would likely end up on the road. With this in mind, the city plans to close a portion of the road underneath the hillside before the next rain event, which officials say will likely take place in the fall.
“We do not see this being a huge public threat, but we’re going to be taking it seriously we’re going to be looking into this,” Mr. Haggemark said. “We’re going to be preemptively closing the road ahead of any major rain event.”
At the conclusion of Saturday’s event, Christina Gil Lomeli, a resident of the lower West Side, voiced concerns about the lack of emergency response to those living in the neighborhoods below TV Hill. She told the News-Press that the lack of communication to folks at the bottom of the hill created “emotional trauma damage,” which she said was evidenced in the number of people she saw running down the streets away from the flames on the night of the fire.
In the future, she is hoping that the city officials will address this “blindspot” by alerting people who officials know are in danger as well as those who are not in danger.
“They needed to have alerted us down at the bottom, so that we didn’t have these families running in the streets with fear in their eyes and carrying all of their belongings on their back,” Ms. Gil Lomeli told the News-Press.
During the town hall, other residents of the lower West Side voiced concerns over the traffic coming in and out of the neighborhood on the night of the Loma Fire. Beverly and Don Perkins, residents of the area, told the News-Press that on the night of the fire, they saw a number of cars entering the neighborhood to get a close-up look of the flames.
“The fire was very traumatic, but what was more traumatic for me, personally, was to see the parade of cars, and it was bumper to bumper cars,” Ms. Perkins said. “And I really don’t believe that those are people from our neighborhood, trying to get out. There are people trying to come in to see and get closer to the fire, so that was a little traumatic to me.”
In response to this concern, Mayor Murillo said in the event of future disasters, she is discouraging the public from driving into affected neighborhoods to make sure everyone in the area can evacuate safely.