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VENTURA, California (VN) — Derin Stockton was jolted awake by the thud of boulders tumbling down the hillside behind his cottage in Montecito. When he looked out of his window, an orange fireball erupted from a nearby burning home, briefly illuminating the dawn sky.
Stockton ran outside and across the property to the home of his landlady, Karen. Thick mud had begun to seep down from the bushes and pool in front of her house, and newly formed rivers cut into the ground. Stockton told Karen she had to evacuate; he helped her into her truck and told her to drive for help. Moments after she departed Stockton’s cellphone rang. It was Karen. Her truck had become stuck in the rising muck. Stockton ran down to the sinking vehicle.
“I wade into this stuff, first to my shins, then my waist. It’s not water, it’s like a mixture of rocks and wood. I’m like holy shit,” Stockton says. “She rolls down the window and it’s like OK, this is a rescue operation.”
Stockton lifted Karen out of the vehicle and waded to safety. When it was light out, Stockton walked his property and assess the damage from the oncoming mud. At the edge of his driveway, near the sunken truck, he stopped.
Lying face up near the edge of his driveway was a dead body.
This is how Derin Stockton recalls the morning of January 9, 2018, a day that will forever be remembered in this Southern California enclave for the debris flows that swallowed hundreds of homes and killed 21 residents. Weeks after the region was burned by the Thomas Fire — now regarded as the largest wildfire in California history — winter rains arrived and soaked the hillsides. The dry, scorched earth turned to spongy mush. Once saturated, the soupy mixture of earth and rocks slipped down the steep hillsides into Montecito, burying cars, homes, and the people inside.
Those hillsides are what prompted Stockton to move back to Montecito six years ago after he spent nearly 11 years away. Stockton grew up in Montecito and raced bicycles alongside his brother, Kurt. He made it to the pro ranks; his career included stints with the Chevrolet-LA Sheriffs team, as well as a few professional mountain biking squads. These days he coaches local cyclists in Santa Barbara and still rides in the area.
Months after that morning, Stockton still thinks about the grisly discovery.
“It’s had a huge impact on me. That could have been me, it could have been my landlady,” Stockton says. “Who knows what could have happened if something had been different?”
Craving a return to normalcy
Stories from the Montecito debris flows will take center stage on Monday afternoon as the Amgen Tour of California rolls through town before climbing to the finish line atop nearby Gibraltar Road. The race has been rerouted off of damaged roads and into downtown Montecito, where the local organizing committee will host a viewing party alongside a jumbotron.
Eric Smith, the Tour of California’s race director, said the event made special efforts to bring the race back to Montecito, despite the destruction to the roadways.
“It’s a chance for us to show that Montecito has bounced back,” Smith said. “Businesses are open for customers.”
Santa Barbara and Montecito support a thriving cycling community, and the disaster had a broad impact on the lives of local riders. For some, the disaster led to lost riding time and the closure of favorite roads and trails. For others, the event had a more serious impact: friends killed, property ruined, lives buried under tons of muck.
“There’s a loss of the way we used to live,” says Shelly Verses, the longtime soigneur for the U.S. National team and 7-Eleven. “What happened to that road I loved to ride on? What happened to the place where I’d go and look up at the mountains for the last 38 years? We’ve all been going through the various phases of grief.”
No matter the severity of the loss, all desire a return to the way things were before the disaster. And some have found that the bicycle can offer the first step back toward a normal life — or at the very least a therapeutic respite from the sadness.
Jeff Bermant, a CEO in the tech industry and road rider, woke up on the morning of January 9 to discover that the backyard of his multi-million dollar home in the Montecito hills had been transformed into a raging river. While his house survived the slide, homes directly adjacent to his were reduced to rubble.
Bermant and his wife evacuated and spent the next two months living in hotels in nearby Santa Barbara. They also attended funerals for several friends who perished in the disaster.
Throughout the ordeal, Bermant craved a return to his bicycle, but the smoke from the fire and the mudslides kept him indoors for months. Three weeks after the evacuation Bermant returned home. He grabbed his bicycle and went for a spin.
“I smashed myself up Gibraltar Road. It was very therapeutic,” Bermant says. “I had such a pent-up need to [ride] and clear my mind. It was emotional.”
Those Gibraltar rides now help Bermant cope with the new reality of his living situation. Officials have told him that major rainstorms could trigger more slides in the area for years to come.
Dave Lettieri, owner of Fastrack Bicycles in Santa Barbara, said his shop became a hangout for local cyclists displaced by the flood. Evacuated and unable to ride, these customers simply arrived to spend time at a familiar place and share stories from the floods. Fastrack saw soft sales in December when smoke from the Thomas Fire kept many riders off of the roads. Lettieri said sales went up in January as displaced riders purchased bicycles and gear to get them back onto the roads.
“There was so much uncertainty that for some people riding made it feel normal,” Lettieri said. “One guy who lost his home came in to buy a bike and [kit] and everything. He said it was to clear his mind.”
A return of the race
The debris flows washed away a series of bridges across CA 192, the scenic two-lane highway that cyclists use to reach the open roads south of town. The road at the foot of the hills was the preferred route of Santa Barbara’s “Sunday Worlds” group ride, which met at 9:15 a.m. sharp at Santa Barbara’s East Beach and went down to Carpenteria and back. Participation in the ride began to dwindle when choking smoke from the Thomas Fire wafted in from nearby Ventura. After the debris flow washed through, the ride ended entirely.
“You look at the Strava segments and you can see that people just aren’t riding that way,” Lettieri says. “Riders are getting back out on the roads, just not the ones they’re used to.”
The loss of CA 192 created a sizable hurdle for the Amgen Tour of California, which this year passes through Montecito on its way to the Gibraltar Road summit finish on stage 2. After the Thomas Fire roared through the area, Smith drove through the impacted areas and determined that the route was fine. The mudslides, however, changed that reality. The race would need to find a new way from Carpenteria to Gibraltar Road.
“We lost six miles of the route,” Smith says. “It became a question of how do we get to Montecito?”
In the ensuing weeks, Smith worked with officials from Santa Barbara County to plot a new east-to-west route that went closer to the coast. The new route utilized a series of small roads: Cravens Road, Via Real, Jameson Lane, Hermosillo Road, along with Hot Springs and Sycamore Canyon roads.
Major bicycle races often receive criticism from small communities due to the road closures and traffic. Thus far, that’s not the case with Montecito, Smith said. The race represents Montecito’s first major civic event since the disaster.
“Nobody pushed back and said, ‘We don’t want you,'” Smith said. “I think people are tired of talking about the fires and are ready to get back with normal life.”
The new route also takes riders past Stockton’s home. Stockton was lucky — his cottage survived the mudslides. For six weeks after the disaster, he and his girlfriend lived out of backpacks, staying with friends in the Santa Barbara area. He went back to work and started riding again. Life became normal again.
Hosting the bicycle race is part of a collective process that Stockton says he has gone through alongside his neighbors.
“All of Montecito is still hurting. There’s personal loss and economic loss,” Stockton says. “It’s important for us to feel like we can do something like this.”