SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Many people on Santa Barbara's Westside were not sure whether or not they were in danger on the night of May 20 as the Loma Fire raced up TV Hill, threatening homes at the top of the Mesa.
No one received an emergency alert on their phone from the city or county.
On Saturday, city leaders met with concerned residents below the burn scar at Parque de los Niños on the Westside. The city's fire and police chiefs explained their response to the fast-moving fire and why no emergency alerts went out.
“I’ve never seen [a fire] move as fast as this one did,” interim police chief Barney Melekian said.
Fire chief Chris Mailes said warm sundowner winds created the perfect storm.
“What we had was upwards of 50 mile per hour winds hitting that hillside in what’s called ‘perfect alignment,’” Mailes said.
Mailes emphasized that given the topography and wind, and the fact that fires generally burn uphill, firefighters knew those at the top of the hill were the ones in immediate danger, and others were not in the fire's path.
The rapid spread, Mailes said, necessitated a door-to-door property check and door-knocking on top of the hill as the most efficient way to get people out of their homes and to safety.
“Say, an hour or so in, we had 11 fire engines at the top of the hill,” he explained. "And their task was life safety and structure protection.”
Melekian admitted, however, that the messaging for those not in harm's way could have been better. Many who live in the homes just below the hill did not know whether or not they were safe.
“At the Incident Command, we knew where the fire was going,” Melekian said. “But in retrospect, the people who live down here would have no way to know that.”
Christina Gil Lomeli was one of those who saw that uncertainty firsthand.
“Equally important is the emotional traumatic damage that happened to the families on the bottom [of the hill] who did not know that fire travels up and not down,” she said. “The look and fear in the eyes of the families here on the lower Westside.
“It could have been addressed by simply sending us an alert in English and Spanish, letting the community here at the bottom know what [firefighters] knew. Which is, ‘You are safe. The fire is not going down the hill.’”
Julie Blair and Mike Smith live in the evacuation zone at the top of the hill on Miramonte Drive, but left home before firefighters arrived. They then were scrambling to find information online.
“Never did get any sort of emergency evacuation notice,” Blair said. “So we didn’t know what was going on at our house.”
“I think it would have fallen to their support network, who was not fighting the fire, to get the communication out and make sure those systems were functioning,” Smith said.
Mayor Cathy Murillo and city council member Oscar Gutierrez were at the meeting as well. Some people attending were pleased with the direct communication with community members, while others found the city leaders ambivalent in trying to address concerns.
"I wish it was more welcoming, and I felt that my raised hand was not welcomed," said Lomeli, who said the meeting was "one step forward but 10 steps back."
"I think it's just now super important to know that they have blind spots and they need to engage with the community a lot more to be mindful of their blind spots," she added.
Those from the city offered free bags with emergency signs and information for people to take home. They encouraged continued preparation for emergencies, with ReadySBC.org and Listos as important sites where people can sign up for alerts.
City leaders say they plan to move people experiencing homelessness who are camping in the area elsewhere in order to prevent future fires on TV Hill.