Catastrophic Flooding in Montecito

By Kelly Mahan Herrick   |   January 11, 2018

On Tuesday, January 9, 2018, Montecito endured the most catastrophic natural disaster of the last several decades as a rain storm created multiple mudslides and flooding, taking the lives of at least 13 people. As of press time, more than 25 Montecito residents remain unaccounted for; there are also dozens of homes lost and even more damaged by water, mud, and debris. “We expected to have catastrophic mud flow from this weather event,” said Montecito Fire chief Chip Hickman. “This is everything we thought it could be and more.” 

Attempting to prepare the community for what was expected to be a significant rainfall event mere weeks after the Thomas Fire decimated our local foothills, Santa Barbara County officials held a press conference last week to prepare residents for the potential for flooding. At that time, they released an interactive map showing the potential flood zones and warned residents to be prepared with sandbags and other precautions. “The potential for debris flow is ten times worse than we’ve ever dealt with,” Montecito Fire chief of operations Kevin Taylor told us at that time. 

Two days later, on Sunday evening, the County released mandatory evacuations for 7,000 Montecito, Summerland, and Carpinteria residents near the burn area, above Highway 192 between Cold Spring Road and the County line, to begin at noon on Monday, January 8. Voluntary evacuations were also issued, covering 23,000 people below Highway 192 to the ocean, from Summit and Camino Viejo to Highway 150. 

At 4 am Tuesday, heavy rain caused at least two major debris flows, both hundreds of feet wide, according to Chief Hickman. The debris flow caused the failure of a natural gas line that runs along East Mountain Drive; a massive explosion occurred near the La Casa de Maria property on El Bosque Road, and several structures near there caught fire. “We rescued several people from those homes, all with burn injuries,” Chief Hickman said. “The light from the fire awoke many residents, as it lit up the night sky, making it look like daylight.” 

Montecito Creek, which runs behind homes on Olive Mill Road and Hot Springs Road, overflowed, causing homes to come loose from their foundations and sending massive boulders and debris down Olive Mill Road to the ocean. Mud and debris made its way onto Coast Village Road, sending abandoned cars crashing into the front of Montecito Inn, and damaging several commercial buildings. The debris also overtook Highway 101, causing drivers who were evacuating to turn around on the freeway, searching for higher ground. Several of those drivers abandoned their vehicles and traversed on foot up the freeway embankments. 

Montecito Fire Protection District received thousands of calls from residents needing rescue; people were on the 2nd floors of their homes as well as their roofs, awaiting emergency responders. MFPD, with the help of other local and regional teams, performed 50 rescue hoists via helicopter, and 50 on-foot rescues, and as of press time, continued to be in search and rescue mode, searching for survivors. 

“The death toll will rise,” Chief Hickman said. Five-hundred personnel were on the ground Tuesday afternoon, helping to clean up debris and search for the missing. He said many of the rescues performed were for injured people, some moderately, and several seriously injured. Three hundred people were being airlifted out of Romero Canyon by the afternoon, and Birnam Wood Golf Club was turned into a “casualty collection point,” where evacuees gathered to be transported out of the area. 

“We staged equipment, we upstaffed, and we warned residents of the danger this storm posed,” Chief Hickman said. Unfortunately, it’s estimated that only 20 percent of residents heeded the evacuation mandates. “Everybody took it lightly and had evacuation fatigue from having to leave during the fire,” he said. Chief Hickman said the bulk of the event happened in a short timeframe, giving mere minutes of reaction time. 

Preliminary assessments estimate that 20 homes were completely destroyed, with dozens more severely damaged. Those numbers are also expected to rise in the coming days and weeks. The area is without power and gas as of press time, and is under a boil-water advisory. Highway 101 is likely to remain closed until the end of the week. 

A community forum at Montecito Union School planned for Friday has been canceled; the forum was to increase awareness about potential flooding and mudslides, to give residents a better understanding about the condition of the hillsides in Montecito. “We have 22,000 acres of denuded hillsides. We are not out of the woods, and it can and will likely happen again. Any significant rain is a huge threat,” Chief Hickman said. 

This is an ongoing story that we will have more coverage on in the coming weeks. 


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