Sean Johnson, a lecturer with the Department of Public Health and a fire captain with the City of Fresno, was deployed to assist with the Montecito mudslides last month. As a rescue technician with the California Rescue Task Force-5, Johnson is often on the front lines when disaster strikes. He has been teaching at Fresno State since 2010 and has been in the fire service for 20 years. In his own words and photos, Johnson talked to us about his experience.
It started with a phone call I received late at night to report to Fresno Fire Station 11. Our regional rescue task force was being deployed to Montecito for search and rescue operations. For those that are unaware, a regional rescue task force is a team comprised of specially trained rescuers that can be deployed at a moments notice and begin self-sustaining rescue operations for up to 72 hours.
Our Task Force V consists of rescuers from Fresno City, Fresno County, Clovis, Selma, Reedley and Tulare. When I arrived at Station 11 the team was quickly loading up supplies including cots, sleeping bags, MRE’s and special tools or equipment we thought might be needed.
At that time, all we knew was that we were going to conduct search and rescue operations in the debris field and it was unknown if mudslide flows had ceased.
When we assembled our equipment and personnel, we convoyed to Fresno County Fire Station 85 and met up with the rest of the regional team. Our Task Force Leader gave us a quick briefing of what to expect and then we formed up a convoy and drove through the night to arrive at the Montecito base camp at approximately 5:30 a.m.
At 7 a.m. we were given an area to search for victims which was heavily impacted by the mudslide. At that time, approximately 40 people were estimated to be missing.
We loaded up and drove to the impact area, where our team was split into two squads of rescue specialists and technical search specialists. The incident was in “rescue mode”, meaning our job was to search the impact area for survivors, void spaces and any areas we thought might contain survivors. The safety briefing we received really set the tone for the seriousness of the situation.
Because the mudslide had destroyed entire neighborhoods, moving houses off their foundations, there were many hazards we had to be on the lookout for including buried live power lines, open sewage drains, twisted metals, hidden gas leaks – and the one that caught my attention most was hidden swimming pools and ponds.
Entire neighborhoods were unrecognizable and covered with mud that had settled across pools creating a false ground front. One rescuer unexpectedly fell trough the mud and into a pool while searching. Thankfully his partner caught him in time. Because of this we had to move slowly through the mud using tools to probe ahead of us.
The mud in most areas was waist deep. We worked in 12-hour shifts starting at 7 a.m. and ending our days at 7 p.m. For four days, we painstakingly searched homes and debris for survivors or victims and slept in cots and sleeping bags at base camp with all of the other rescue task forces from California.
A few days after the incident, operations were shifted into recovery mode and the rescue task forces were demobilized. In the end our Rescue Task Force did a phenomenal job and cleared 35 homes.
The devastation is impossible to comprehend or describe, I have been in this business for 20 years and never seen anything like this. Montecito will be impacted for many, many years to come. Although the devastation is heart breaking, witnessing the community come together and the human spirit of helping those in need is truly an honor to be a part of.
We applaud Sean’s brave service and are proud to have him on the CHHS team. Thank you, Sean! To learn more about his work, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.