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It’s difficult to imagine anything more terrifying than an inferno racing toward your home. Except, perhaps, a wall of black water and mud raging downhill destroying everything in its path.

The floods from torrential rains earlier this week wreaked more havoc in terms of human lives lost than the Thomas fire, although one could argue that the flooding was directly due to scorched land in the fire’s wake, so is therefore part of a string of related events.

Those of us in North County escaped the brunt of those catastrophes, but both the state’s largest wildfire and the flooding and mudslides in Montecito are a vivid reminder that, there, but for the grace of …

The core of the winter storm — a confluence of cold air from the north and warm, moist air from the south — struck at the worst possible time, 3 a.m. Tuesday morning. Most South Coast folks went to bed Monday evening aware that a major rain event was coming, but many probably never imagined the level of devastation the storm runoff would cause. Seventeen people lost their lives, including four children, and eight remain missing.

At one point the rain was coming down in the hills above Montecito at the rate of a half-inch in five minutes, and it was pounding down on terrain scoured clean of brush and vegetation by the Thomas fire, leaving the ashes and debris that came downhill in the mudslides.

The slides were relentless, covering vehicles and roads, and crushing homes. Mud and debris covered Highway 101, shutting down the South Coast’s only viable escape route. It was like something out of a sci-fi disaster film.

Rescue teams from across the region raced in to help, and videos of dramatic rescues — including the extraction of a 14-year-old girl from a ruined home in Montecito — made the national news on all networks. The girl told rescuers she was sure she would die.

Evacuations had been ordered on Monday in areas below recently burned regions of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties, but officials say only about 10 to 15 percent of people in the mandatory evacuation area heeded the warnings.

There are terrible lessons for all of us in this week’s disasters. First, weather forecasters were spot-on in their predictions of rainfall totals, which means the results in burn areas were also absolutely predictable. And that is why when officials order an evacuation you should pay close attention.

And we learn time and time again that you don’t mess with Mother Nature, especially here in California. We seem to have the most and best of everything, but that also means we have the worst of everything.

Most of North County is not like the South Coast, in so many ways. But we are certainly not immune to the whims of nature, be it fire, flood or earthquake.

The real lesson is this — listen to the experts. Many Montecitans had only a few days ago returned to their homes after evacuation from the Thomas fire. To be told so soon to get out created a sort of evacuation fatigue, and many of those who lost everything stayed in their homes for that reason.

We may think we know more than the experts, but the odds are — overwhelmingly — we don’t. The experts pretty much knew a disaster was inevitable by late last week, and began warning folks then.

The lesson is to be prepared for the very worst, especially when the pros say it’s coming.

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