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Guiding Force In Santa Barbara County Disaster Preparedess And Relief Set To Retire

One of the Montecito homes hit by the January, 2018 Montecito debris flow

Rob Lewin is looking forward to being able to get some real rest for the first time in four years. That was when he became Director of Santa Barbara County’s Office of Emergency Management. In four years, he faced six major fires, the Alamo, Ray, Sherpa, Whittier, Thomas, and Holiday brush fires. On top of that, there was the deadly 1/9 debris flow in Montecito. Lewin is planning to retire this spring.

He admits when he took the job, he had no clue the county would face so many major emergencies in such a short period of time.

One of the biggest issues the Office of Emergency Management faces is deciding when evacuation orders need to be issued. He says the challenge is getting the public to go, especially when storms poses a threat. Lewin says it’s easier to get people to heed evacuation orders for fires, because the threat is often more visible.

Lewin says they’ve worked hard to insure evacuation orders are focused on when there’s a real threat this rainfall, and have been able to limit the amount of time people have been forced out of their homes. Looking back on the deadly 1/9 debris flow, he admits it’s difficult to think at it now, knowing it could happen, working to prepare and warn people, and still seeing the loss of life.

Lewin is no stranger to disasters. He was a firefighter on the Central Coast for nearly four decades, and was the Calfire/San Luis Obispo County Fire Chief when he retired. He then joined Santa Barbara County. Lewin says despite everything the region has been through, we need to be prepared, because things like brush fires and debris flows are part of the new norm as a result of climate change.

Lewin is hoping to share some of the lessons we’ve learned with other emergency planners and first responders around the country, through a consulting business. It would be heard to find someone who’s faced as many emergencies during their career.