Shaking in her Subaru with her sick son by her side, a terrified Maria Ise could see in her rear view mirror the massive fire caused by a gas explosion devour her California neighborhood.
Up ahead, the road was littered with uprooted trees, boulders and mud. They were dumped there by the torrential rains swamping Montecito and turning the gentle creek by her home into a raging river.
“You could hear the creek,” Ise recalled. “It had an evil roar.”
Faced with two bad options, Ise said she did the only thing she could.
“I finally floored it and I made it through,” she said.
It was the start of what would be a harrowing escape from the fire and rain Tuesday that turned the wealthy enclave sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains into a muddy hell and left 17 people across Santa Barbara County dead, including four children.
Reunited with her husband Christopher, their teenage daughters, and her 94-year-old father-in-law, Ise told NBC News on Thursday she was counting her blessings — even though the first floor of her home is now filled with mud and they are now bunking with friends. She said she was kicking herself that she didn’t heed the orders to evacuate before the rains hit.
I am, she said, “feeling like the biggest idiot that I didn’t evacuate.”
Meanwhile, a veteran firefighter interviewed by NBC News said the cause of the blast that sent Ise running for her life was likely a boulder swept by rains that crashed into a gas junction.
Part of the reason they didn’t evacuate when they had the chance, Ise said, was because her 12-year-old son Dino had the flu and because they’d been forced to flee the house a few weeks earlier when it was threatened by wildfires.
“My husband wanted to stay to protect the house,” she said, adding that their girls were staying with friends. “We thought we could handle the water. If we got wet, if we got muddy, we were prepared for that… I don’t think anybody had any idea how bad it would be.”
They were sleeping when the rain started hammering the roof around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, she said.
Ise, 47, said her husband Christopher got up to check the sandbags protecting their home and when she joined him in the driveway “that’s when the explosion happened.”
“Four hundred feet of fire in the air … a big mushroom fire cloud over our neighborhood,” she said. “That’s when I started screaming.”
Ise said she ran to her son’s bedroom and dragged him out of bed.
“He had no shoes, no shirt,” she said. “My husband went back to get his dad and the dogs and I took off up the street to get away from the heat, and from that fire … I had no idea where it was going to go, or even what it was.”
She added that “suddenly the rain was not an issue, it was the fire that was threatening our lives for sure …. It was like several jetliners crashed at the same time.”
At the top of the street, Ise said she spotted her neighbor Mick who cleared away some of the downed trees and scattered rocks so she could get through. She said she heard him scream and stopped when she realized he had no way to get out.
When he got to the car, Ise said she gave him the wheel and off they went, dodging falling trees and rocks and skidding on the mud-slickened roads.
“At any moment I thought we were going to lose traction and just start river-rafting down Park Lane,” she said.
Several times, Ise said, they found their path blocked by walls of flames. Other times, it was waves of water that threatened to swamp the Subaru.
“I completely lost it,” she admitted. “I thought we were going to be swept away … I was hysterical, I couldn’t think, it was all too much.”
Somehow, Mick managed to escape the flames and find his way to a nearby Birnam Wood Golf Club where an elderly guard was still at his post and directed them to higher ground.
“I finally saw the driveway of a home and it kind of went up and he pulled in there,” Ise said.
Then, Ise said, she had a sickening thought — she had no idea where her husband was.
“I was so scared about stuff coming at us, I wasn’t thinking about my husband until we finally got somewhere when I could think,” she said. “And then I was like, ‘Oh my God, I might not ever see him again.'”
Ise said she dialed his number and he answered on the first ring. He had been right behind her and everybody was safe.
When the rain stopped and the sun came up, Ise said they returned to their home to inspect the damage. She said they were glad to see it still standing.
“The mud was super deep,” she said. “It sucked your shoes in.”
Ise said there are dozens of other temporarily homeless residents like her camped out with friends or in shelters. She said that everywhere she’s been since her close call has treated her with kindness, including a complete stranger who handed her $500 in cash. She said they plan to eventually go back home.
“I have a great life, I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she said.