The Santa Barbara County Fire Department made numerous water rescues throughout the past year, following storms and a surge in rainfall from late December 2022 to March 2023. Cliff erosion, ocean pollution and high tides have all posed threats to those on the beach and in the water. 

Rip currents pose a threat, dragging surfers away from the shore at the risk of drowning. Pablo Van Dyck / Daily Nexus

Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency during the winter storms, which led to flood warnings, evacuation orders, road closures and school cancellations, in addition to an increase in the number of water rescues necessary. 

Rescue teams were frequently called to the Isla Vista area due to poor ocean conditions from impacts of the storms, according to Santa Barbara County (SBC) Fire Department Public Information Officer Scott Safechuck.

“A lot of the rescues that we’ve had earlier this year were more storm related; people going out into the ocean during storms,” Safechuck said. “Even people who are versed at surfing had difficulties just because the tide conditions changed, the beach would disappear, the tide increased in a way so they were breaking against the cliffs, so we had several cliff rescues.”

On Jan. 6, the SBC Fire Department responded to a 911 call regarding a surfer caught by waves against the bluffs. SBC Fire Department utilized a rope system in order to make the rescue which resulted in no injuries after evaluations made by paramedics.

One week later, a surfer trapped on the beach by waves on the west-end of Goleta Beach was rescued and safely escorted to the rocks without injuries. 

On March 13, the SBC Fire Department arrived at the bluffs near UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Research Building in response to a 911 call by a fellow surfer who found the victim floating face-down in the ocean. After a failed CPR attempt, the surfer was declared dead at the scene.

Safechuck warned against beginner surfers going out amidst large waves and poor water quality stating, “beginners should wait for a better day.”

Rip currents pose a threat to swimmers and surfers, dragging people away from the shore and leaving them at risk of drowning, according to Safechuck. 

Safechuck explained the best way to proceed when caught in a rip current.

“In the event that they’re stuck in a rip current, [they should] always swim perpendicular to the rip current, parallel to the shore so that they don’t have to fight the current and then they can work their way in.”

Additionally, tides have been gradually moving further up the shores of Isla Vista since the storms have washed away most of the sand on the beaches.

“There’s certain times in a month where we get extremely high tides, if you look at on a scale of tides, somewhere around a 5.0 or higher can be considered a high tide,” Safechuck said. “It also is affected by how much erosion we have at the beach or how much sand build up we have. So the less sand that we have there, the closer that the water can approach the cliffs.” 

“As the tide comes up, we have a lot of people that are trapped there, so it’s important that people recognize and learn about the tide systems and how it affects the different beaches that they go to,” he continued.

Rainwater runoff from the roads resulted in contaminated ocean water earlier this January. This, coupled with sewage spills and blocked drain pipes, led to high bacteria levels found in ocean water. Miramar Beach and Fernald Point Beach were among the beaches closed due to “approximately 5,760 gallons of sewage” being spilled from to a compromised sewage line, according to a press release from Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.

Safechuck said this can be detrimental to the health of swimmers, who should beware of ocean purity levels prior to entering beaches. County beaches including Butterfly Beach, Arroyo Burro Beach, Hope Ranch Private Beach and Goleta Beach Park were all placed under warning due to not meeting state health standards. Furthermore, people were warned against making contact with lagoon and creek water.

“Anyone who goes into the ocean should be checking different websites to see what the water purity is or if there’s anything that they need to be concerned about,” Safechuck said. “Any time that we get any type of rain, a lot of the mountain runoff and street runoff goes directly into the ocean. So we definitely recommend not going into the ocean within 24-72 hours after it rains.”

As summer approaches and more people are gearing up to spend time on the beaches and in the ocean, Safechuck urged locals to take precautions. Common sundowner winds —  offshore winds from the north — have the potential to push people beneath the water, Safechuck said.

“We recommend that they wear a lifejacket and that they always have more than one form of communication such as a cellphone in a waterproof bag or a marine radio,” Safechuck said. “It’s not uncommon for the sundowner winds to push straight offshore and if people aren’t familiar with those winds it can be blown out into the channel and cause rescues every year for our rescue team.”

Safechuck also spoke to the ways to prevent drownings when in the ocean by ensuring lifeguards are in the vicinity.

“When it comes to ocean safety, we always recommend that someone swims in front of a staff lifeguard station.”

Safechuck advised locals to take water safety seriously with the summer approaching.

“We want people to have a safe enjoyable summer and we want to make sure that we don’t lose anyone in the ocean or to a pool drowning this summer,” Safechuck said. “People [should] take into account if they need to learn how to swim, and this could be the summer to do that.”

A version of this article appeared on p. 4 of the June 1, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.


Anushka Ghosh Dastidar
Anushka Ghosh Dastidar (she/her) is the Lead News Editor for the 2024-25 school year. Previously, Ghosh Dastidar was the Community Outreach News Editor for the 2023-24 school year and the Assistant News Editor for the 2022-2023 school year. She can be reached at or