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By Eric Heinz 

Bill McGowan, a San Clemente resident, was on a business trip to Montecito, staying at the Montecito Inn, when the devastating mudslides that impacted the city came flowing through.
Already ravaged by the Thomas Fire, California’s most devastating wildfire, the soil around the area had been covered in a waxy layer that occurs when plants burn. As such, large chunks of land and soil were displaced, causing massive mudslides in the area.

According to officials in Montecito, the death toll from the mudslides is now 20.

McGowan said he was woken by a fire alarm around 3 a.m. on Jan. 9. Soon after, he realized what was taking place.

“There was a gas main break about a quarter of a mile away. No power that we could see, but the gas main broke and there was a 200-foot flame,” McGowan said. “The water rose from about 2 feet to 8 feet quickly, and it was just really loud, like a freight train coming down.”
It wasn’t until daybreak that McGowan could see the true force of the mudslides.

He was a little lucky. His car was located in an area where the mud hadn’t consumed everything in its path. McGowan said after a few hours in the hotel, where 3 feet of mud had encased the lower level, people were getting hungry as food was not available at the inn.

The real shock came when firefighters and other emergency personnel pulled out a dead body that was unrecognizable from the mudslides.

“There wasn’t a lot of immediate devastation, but you started focusing and seeing there were cars in trees,” McGowan said.
Eventually, after traipsing through a few inches of mud to a supermarket, McGowan said he was able to get some food and help.

“I never felt nervous or scared, until I woke up the next day and saw the aerial photos and the rest of the devastation,” McGowan said.

The recovery process in Montecito is indefinite at this time. To make a financial donation, visit the United Way website or text UWVC to 41444. Donations will be accepted over the phone in Ventura at 805.485.6288 and Santa Barbara at 805.965.8591.

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