For our February issue, titled “Cost of Waves,” we selected a cover image featuring the talented Montecito-based goofyfoot Parker Coffin arching his way through a dreamy Ventura tube. When we made that cover pick back in November, we didn’t realize how directly it would tie into the theme of the issue by the time it hit newsstands. Shortly after we sent the mag to press, the same dry, windy conditions that created the above tube also created a situation in which wildfires were bound to erupt. From December 4 until January 12, roughly 281,893 acres in Ventura County and the surrounding areas had burned in the Thomas Fire, causing staggering property damage and two fatalities. The fires also created the conditions that allowed for the mudflows that ravaged the Montecito area following a stretch of heavy rain, killing at least 21 people. In the aftermath of the terrible events that have plagued his home coast, I caught up with Coffin to talk about perfect waves and heart-wrenching tragedy, and how often the two seem to go hand-in-hand.
So that photo looks like the most classic California beach break conditions. What do you remember from that day?
When we first woke up and checked it that day, the waves were actually shit–just big and closed out. It was pretty chunky and the winds were really weird. I’d been cruising with Mini [Jason Blanchard] and Dane [Reynolds], and since the waves were bad we went to this taco place to grab some food. I was in a full-on food coma afterward, but Dane’s like, “I think we should go look at it again.” I thought there was no way we were going to surf, but sure enough, Dane called it and when we came over the sand dune to look, it was just the biggest and best it’s been all season. I ran back to grab my stuff and was in the water so fast. I think the cover shot might have been my first wave. But that day was incredible. I probably got the best barrel I’ve ever gotten in California on one of my other waves.
So that was the first run of swell with Santa Ana winds back in October. The next stretch of Santa Anas came just before the fires, right?
Yeah, that was crazy. I had already left for Hawaii at that point–I think I’d been gone 4 days by the time the fires started. I just kept close tabs on everyone back home, checking for updates all the time, getting whatever information we could from the news. But that was so, so gnarly for the whole community around Ventura. I kept in touch with a lot of my friends who stayed through the fires, and they said the waves were going off, but none of them were surfing. They were all worried about their houses burning down, so surfing was the last thing on their minds.
Was your house in the evacuation area?
Yeah, we were in the evacuation zone, but we were already in Hawaii. Pretty much all of my friends and family got evacuated as well. And then the mudslides were even gnarlier…
Yeah, that looked horrendous. So what’s the latest on that? How’s Montecito picking up the pieces after the slide?
Well, they got the freeway open, which was a really big step. For a bit, everyone was trying to take the train to get in and out of town, which made the train way overbooked. I had friends who were literally getting stuck in places, just unable to get home after work. So having the freeway open definitely helps, but the town will probably never be the same, to be honest. People are doing an amazing job cleaning up as much as they can, but the scary part is that we’re not out of the woods at all. There’s gonna be more rain, and this sort of thing could easily happen again. I just hope people are able to evacuate quicker next time.
What about your family and your house? Did you guys make it out alright?
We had some water damage, and there was debris and shit everywhere, but there was no structural damage to the house and everyone’s OK. We got really lucky.
As someone who grew up in California, you’re probably all too familiar with the double-edged sword of Santa Ana winds. Do you get a bit of anxiety when you see that in the forecast and think that it could lead to fires in your community?
Yeah, it’s crazy how you have to think about that, and not just in California. In California you worry about wildfires breaking out during Santa Anas, and then on the East Coast you’re obviously worried about the hurricanes that make waves eventually coming over land. So often when the waves are good around the world, it’s because of some weird weather phenomenon that might do some serious damage to people’s homes and lives. It’s kind of a hard thing to wrap your head around, because you get excited for the waves, but obviously you don’t want anything bad to happen. Like with the mudslides, when I knew all my friends and family were dealing with that shit show, going surfing just didn’t feel right.
Do you think guilt is the right way to feel about surfing during something like that? Or do you think surfing can actually help people cope in those hard moments?
I think it can go both ways. Before the rain and the mudslides, my mom actually told me in advance that the weather was taking a turn and they were expecting road closures, so I just decided to head down to San Diego and stay with Taylor Clark for a few days and surf. But I had no idea how bad it was going to be back home. My mom called me after the mudslides and told me about what had happened and I started to feel really guilty about leaving. I’m not even sure what I would have been able to do, but that’s just how I felt in that moment.