National News

Montecito’s Mud Volunteers

Posted April 25, 2018 2:15 p.m. EDT

They call themselves the “second responders.”

Montecito, California, has slipped out of the headlines since torrents of mud and boulders thundered down the mountain in January, killing at least 21 people and destroying around 130 homes.

But a group of volunteers, the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade, is not finished digging out homes buried in mud and retrieving precious belongings of residents who in some cases have lost nearly everything.

“It’s been a long three months,” said Abe Powell, an electrician who formed the bucket brigade, which has dug out more than 80 homes.

They’ve unearthed a wedding ring, family photos, letters — and troves of muddy documents. The group rented a giant walk-in freezer where items are stored to kill mold.

On a recent morning the brigade descended on a one-story, wooden ranch house wrecked by the mudflows. In what was the living room, a floral patterned love seat was half submerged and Christmas ornaments were caked into the hardened dirt. Volunteers hacked away with pick axes and shovels.

“It’s a humbling experience to have people digging out your life in front of you,” said Curtis Skene, the owner of the house who narrowly escaped the mudflows by taking shelter behind an olive tree in his garden. “I’m humbled — and grateful.”

A day later Oprah Winfrey came to document the dig-out with a camera crew. In a community filled with celebrities, her estate is one street over.

The bucket brigade has dug out both mansions and modest bungalows. They are also trying to save oak trees from suffocation.

Among the diggers is Carol Bartoli, 73, a chef and caterer, who has outlasted some of the younger volunteers. After the mudslide, “the attitude was if the mud is on your property it’s your responsibility,” she said.

“I just thought, I’m going to help.”

With the rainy season all but over, the group works under bright blue skies. But in the hills above Montecito, boulders are perched precariously as if waiting for their cue to tumble.

“If you live between the mountain and the ocean it’s almost par for the course,” said Josiah Hamilton, a real estate agent and a leader of the bucket brigade. “It’s something you have to be prepared for.”