Michael Weber, a real-life hero
On December 4, 2017, most people throughout the nation shivered in winter coats. Michael Weber, however, put on fire protection gear. An environmental scientist in our Thousand Oaks office, his day began as usual managing client responsibilities. However, the rapidly advancing Thomas Fire resulted in a call of duty. As a Search and Rescue volunteer with the Ventura County Sheriff Department, instead of joining his family after work, Michael began spending his evenings heading straight into the path of the raging wildfire.
After spending the night of the 6th with his search and rescue team evacuating people from endangered homes, including his own family, Michael checked in at the office. He reported that several employees and their families from our Thousand Oaks, Camarillo, and Santa Barbara offices had been temporarily displaced because their homes were in the fire’s pathway and/or in an area of concentrated smoke. Thankfully, everyone fared well despite limited property damage, hardship, and discomfort. He praised the firefighters for doing an excellent job protecting structures—and lives. Sadly, one of his search and rescue teammates lost his home in Upper Ojai.
Michael was one of thousands of rescue personnel who battled the Thomas Fire—the largest and most devastating wildfire in California history. For over a month the firestorm ravaged Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, scorching nearly 282,000 acres (440 square miles), destroying or damaging more than 1,300 structures, and causing over $171 million in agricultural losses. Approximately 105,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes. Two people lost their lives.
The Floods and Mud
The devastation didn’t end with the fire. With the Thomas Fire still not 100% contained, a major winter storm hit California’s southern coast on Monday January 8th.
Hillsides laid bare from the late season firestorm meant communities hadn’t had time to shore up their slopes. A flash flood watch was issued as the storms rolled in. By Tuesday morning, more than 5 inches of rain had fallen. A rain gauge at the Carpinteria Fire Department recorded that ½ inch of rain had fallen in just 5 minutes during one of the storm’s surges. This heavy rain triggered a "catastrophic debris flow" in the Montecito area at around 4 a.m. Flash floods, mud slides, and more fires laid waste to property spared by the Thomas Fire. Michael was once again called to duty.
According to authorities, many of the residents who had only recently returned to their fire evacuated homes were experiencing “evacuation fatigue”. Thus, only a small majority of people heeded mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders. Hundreds had to be rescued by emergency crews with only moments to spare. Some didn’t make it out alive.
In a message sent the morning of January 10th, Michael reported that he had spent the day in Montecito with a search and rescue team assisting in loss of life recovery. This time his optimistic spirit couldn’t overshadow his desolation.
_q_tweetable: It is really bad. Potential for same thing or worse will remain across large area impacted by Thomas Fire. Begs the question – recover from what? So many challenges facing so many stakeholders._q_
According to news reports, the flash floods in Montecito and surrounding communities caused the mandatory evacuation of 7,000 people. Several of our team members were again among the evacuees, and we extend our heartfelt thoughts to those who have suffered loss. Overall, 20 people were confirmed dead and 28 more were injured. 65 homes were destroyed. 462 homes and 20 commercial buildings were significantly damaged. 6,000 homes and businesses were without water or sewer service. To complicate rescue efforts, 30 miles of the southbound lane of Interstate 101 were buried under mud and debris, with portions still closed on January 16th. Hopefully, nature gives us some breathing room to clean up and find order amid the wreckage.
As someone passionate about protecting the environment and its inhabitants, emergencies inspire Michael to action. This is what makes it possible for him to work long, grueling hours in the office and as an emergency responder. According to his supervisor, John Bollier, Michael kept a reassuring smile on his face and managed his project workload even while spending his nights amid fires and mud—thanks to the support of his family and team members. And this isn’t Michael’s first large-scale emergency intervention—he was instrumental in the Refugio Oil Spill response and clean-up actions in Santa Barbara County.
Michael Weber consistently goes above and beyond the call of duty. He embodies our Stantec commitment to community and is an example to us all!
With so many of our clients affected by the natural disasters of the past year, we have a new call to action. As a firm offering civil, water, power, transportation, environmental, grant writing, and FEMA response services, we are positioned to mobilize teams quickly to help clients recover so they can move forward. We have focused on-going effort to reach out to those in need of immediate damage assessment and recovery services and are currently involved with two fire recovery projects in Santa Barbara County.