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When debris flowed, Montecito families had little chance to flee

Joe Mozingo, Brittny Mejia and Matt Hamilton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

MONTECITO, Calif. -- The realization that houses might simply vanish didn't start to set in until a 30-foot tree trunk barreled by.

Trina Grokenberger stared out the upstairs window of her white Colonial house Tuesday morning, as a river raged through her front yard.

It was 3:58 a.m.

"Dave!" she called to her husband. "We can't leave now, right? That's all trees coming down the driveway."

Their white Land Rover was parked below, with the suitcase they had packed.

They knew they were in a voluntary evacuation zone and that officials had warned of possible flooding and debris flows. In December they left for five days under a mandatory evacuation during the Thomas fire. Now the word "voluntary" had given them a false sense of comfort.

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They lived on a low slope, just a half mile from the freeway -- far from the steep mountain canyons where they expected the real damage to occur.

"Oh my God, hurry!" she said.

Monday night, a storm pushed into the Santa Ynez range above Montecito on the slopes burned bare just last month.

By 2 a.m., disaster was unfolding with astounding intensity and speed. Rainwater poured down canyons, picking up ash, dirt, sticks and rocks. The debris ruptured a gas main. Fire lit the sky orange.

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