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Thomas Fire in California’s Los Padres National Forest, Dec. 9, 2017

Crisis lessons learned

Connected California disasters show why tourism communities should have a plan
Story by
posted June 27, 2020
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The Thomas Fire, which began on Dec. 4, 2017, in the rural, mountainous area of Ventura County, ultimately burned nearly 281,000 acres. Through this wildfire and an ensuing disaster, I learned about the necessity to develop a mindset of preparation, planning, and adaptability—not only as it relates to crisis, but also to the business of tourism.

California had endured a drought for almost a decade back in 2017, and hot December temperatures, dangerous winds, and extreme dry conditions fueled relentless flames. Just a few days into the conflagration, the fire jumped the county line, spreading into Santa Barbara County. This region had seen fires before, but none quite like this. The flames raged for over a month.

At the time, I was working with a local tourism organization in the Santa Barbara region. The city hosted evacuees from Ventura County, where the fire began, and soon became home to local evacuees who filled the hotels and displaced tourists. Unhealthy air quality prompted others not located in evacuation zones to flee to neighboring counties to the north.

By the time Christmas came, the fire was still uncontained. Finally, in the first week of January, the fire was completely quenched. Many who had evacuated several times throughout the fire were now back in their homes. A credible sense of normalcy emerged, and residents of affected communities believed this terrible nightmare was finally over after the loss of many structures and a few lives.

But on Jan. 9, a new storm emerged and changed the course of events in ways that no one could have anticipated. Due to the forecasted rains, authorities issued a voluntary evacuation notice for people who lived near the Thomas Fire burn areas. Some residents evacuated, but some stayed.

A few miles south of downtown Santa Barbara is Montecito, an area that’s home to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres. Residents who disregarded the evacuation notice awoke at 2 a.m. to a torrential downpour that dropped several inches of rain in just under 15 minutes. The buckets of rain combined with previous drought conditions to send ash, debris from the Thomas Fire, boulders, and rocks tumbling down the mountains and through creek beds and ravines.

Mudslide in Montecito, California, Jan. 10, 2018
Mudslide in Montecito, California (Photo by California National Guard)

Devastating mudflows as tall as 10 to 12 feet tore toward the ocean, damaging or sweeping away structures in its path. Several miles of the 101 freeway, the area’s primary traffic artery between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo, were completely flooded at various points, impeding traffic in both directions. A more tragic outcome was the loss of lives.

When I went to work that morning and learned about the events from the internet and my colleagues, I heard helicopter after helicopter fly over, rescuing dozens of people who were trapped. Disbelief and deep sadness took over. During the Thomas Fire, our office had followed an existing crisis plan that enacted phone trees, a series of communications to locals and visitors, working with local authorities to ensure the accuracy of our information, and placing a pause on our regular advertising messages. We returned to that plan in the first days after the mudflow, and the media launched mass global coverage of the devastation.

For weeks, sections of both the 101 freeway and the Amtrak railway were closed in south Santa Barbara County. Companies that were supplying goods to various areas in California faced a treacherous logistical nightmare. The California Department of Transportation relayed an alternate route that added hours extra to trips, causing severe disruptions of business.

The community was challenged by its grief over the loss of human life as well as homes, familiar buildings, and personal possessions. Balancing that grief with getting messages to the rest of the world, combating misinformation from the global media coverage, and maintaining an environment to support the local economy was a tall order.

Ongoing dangerous weather and possible flooding threatened for several weeks, and local authorities created evacuation maps and implemented reverse 911 calls to warn of new threats. Hotels offered special rates for displaced residents, and rooms filled up quickly. While many groups and leisure travelers canceled their commitments, others came anyway.

Through this twin disaster, I realized the complexity and critical necessity of developing a crisis plan. The five takeaways below outline my findings and best practices for tourism professionals, whether your job is with a destination, hotel, restaurant, attraction, or tour provider.


1. Always have a crisis plan in place, but remember to remain adaptable and flexible.

Having a formal, well-thought-out crisis communications and operations plan is an absolute must. When (not if) an emergency strikes, the basic process by which you conduct business changes. From your internal operations with staff to your outward communications with potential customers—as well as the loss of revenue due to cancellations—changes are inevitable. But if you have a plan in place that everyone is familiar with, it will be easier to navigate through difficult times.

2. Never underestimate the importance of dealing with basic human needs during a tragedy.

Even with a plan in place, you’re not fully prepared to deal with all the traumatic circumstances and situations that present themselves in a crisis. Basic human needs of survival can become the currency. Business becomes a second priority. For example, you might manage a restaurant and need to feed groups of first responders—but most of your staff cannot get to work that day. The emotional ramifications of this type of stress are immeasurable, and you do whatever it takes to get through.

3. Ethical choices in business may not be what you think they are.

During the twin tragedy I described, one of the common issues faced by hoteliers was continuing to host residents who were forced to evacuate and to not displace them for groups or travelers with reservations on the books. Each hotelier had to choose between honoring business commitments and being a family’s only place to go. If you run a hotel, be prepared to rebook guests at a future date. If you are an operator, be prepared to renegotiate your contract and be fluent in what circumstances fall into your force majeure clause.

4. Communities grieve just as individuals do.

What became evident during and following the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Mudslide was that those outside of the community weren’t clear when it was safe to start returning to the area. Several visitors I spoke with said they wanted to honor the community by staying away to allow time to heal from the tragic events. What was interesting was that this compassion was mostly shown by regional visitors and not so much from travelers arriving on long-haul flights. The farther away they came, the less of an impact the tragedy carried.

5. Honor a community dealing with tragedy by giving back.

With the previous point in mind, it is important to start communicating to customers that they are welcome and encouraged to return for a visit. Bringing business back to a community not only helps healing, but it also supports the economy. In Santa Barbara, the impacted areas of both the fire and the mudslide were only in micro areas within a larger region, which was perhaps misrepresented by the media and led to the impression that the entire city of Santa Barbara had completely been lost.

A series of things—big and small—helped the community emerge from the crisis. Retail shops partnered to open their doors, offering special receptions and welcoming cash mobs to celebrate their businesses reopening. The AMGEN Tour of California, an annual cycling event, worked with the city and tourism officials to conclude a portion of its famous race, televised to millions of viewers globally, right through downtown Montecito, where much of the devastation had occurred. This was crucial from a media standpoint to show a positive image of the area and sign that Santa Barbara was once again open for business.

It’s those lasting lessons of resiliency and collaboration that, in the wake of a crisis, encapsulate the power of community.

Michelle Carlen is the founder and president of Alignment Advising, a business and professional development consulting practice with an expertise in the tourism industry. Contact her or visit alignmentadvising.com.

Top photo: Thomas Fire in California’s Los Padres National Forest, Dec. 9, 2017
Photo by U.S. Forest Service