One of the unexpected gifts of the twin tragedies of the Thomas Fire – the largest recorded wildfire in California’s history – and the subsequent Montecito mudslide, has been the outpouring of sympathy, compassion, and support from our neighbors in the City of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Summerland, Goleta, the rest of Santa Barbara County, and the world. Gone is the steady stream of news references referring to Montecito as a celebrity hangout for the rich and privileged affluent retirees, mostly age 65 and older.
Santa Barbara mayor Cathy Murillo, for example, opined that, “We are all in this together.” First responders came from all over this state and from other states. Our Congressman in Washington, D.C., Salud Carbajal helped enlist FEMA help and the Army Corps of Engineers. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Monique Limon championed legislation to make certain that fire insurance policies covered both fire and related flood damage.
County supervisor Das Williams and a responsive county team of Tom Fayram, (public works and flood control); sheriff-coroner Bill Brown (mandatory evacuations and public safety); Rob Lewin (emergency management); Charity Dean (public health); and all the other teams of supporters and responders have been focused on Montecito’s needs. Tim Gubbins at Caltrans cleared the impassible 101 in a matter of three days. (If only he could repeat that feat in widening the 101 to three lanes in each direction in three months…)
Local district leaders and heroes included Montecito Fire District’s Chip Hickman, Kevin Taylor and all the firefighters at MFPD, Nick Turner at Montecito Water District, Diane Gabriel at Montecito Sanitary District, MUS superintendent Anthony Ranii and MUS board president Gwyn Lurie, Cold Spring school superintendent and principal Amy Alzina, whose 170 students at Cold Spring Elementary School had the added burden of dealing with the loss of two friends in the flood, kindergartener Peerawat Sutthithepa, age 6, and sixth-grader Sawyer Corey, age 12. Add Charlene Nagel at the Montecito Association and the team of Bob Ludwick and Sharon Byrne at the Coast Village Road Association to the unprecedented professional response teams.
Geologists tell us that wax released by burned chaparral helped to accelerate the flow that took both lives and homes as it made its way to the sea; nature, in fact, has permanently changed the face of Montecito. Will we be able to change too? It is never too early to begin the envisioning process, to see Montecito as it once was and as it could be, restored to its natural beauty and made better.
Time to Underground
Montecito features some $9 billion in residential real estate that sits atop a century-old infrastructure. Our underground water pipes are 100 years old; many are corroded and long past their useful life. Aboveground, we see ugly utility poles and crossbars, topped with increasingly heavier and unsightly wires. One by one, rotting wooden poles are being converted to even uglier steel poles with refrigerator-sized boxes hanging on them for cell-phone coverage. They have become visual environmental disasters on their own.
The mudslide and flood took out the poles and wires on a wide swath of East Valley Road. State Route 192 is a mess with its broken bridges, downed utility poles, and increasingly torn-up roadway pounded by 200,000 heavy truckloads of mud and muck, with more to come. This roadway will need to be rebuilt. As a component of future storm readiness, the opportunity exists for Caltrans to petition FEMA for funding to rebuild 192, including construction of giant underground culverts to house water pipes, sewer lines, gas lines, electrical and broadband cable, free from the danger of wildfires. Also needed are storm-ready emergency disaster generators and community notification systems.
Our only land connection to the outside world – Highway 101 – is an un-widened mess. We have the Montecito gap, the only un-widened section with just two lanes in each direction from Ventura to Goleta. Miraculously, the 101 saved lives during the pre-dawn mudflow, becoming a catch basin for hundreds of cubic yards of mud and debris that would otherwise have descended and demolished more homes in the Biltmore, Channel Drive, and Bonnymede areas.
Today, a re-opened 101 remains eternally in gridlock, choked with vehicles, many of which then cut through our community seeking – unsuccessfully – a faster route. When the freeway widening begins, the opportunity exists to create a second underground, giant, walk-through culvert, underground along the 101, stretching the length from Carpinteria to Santa Barbara to carry water lines, recycled water, utilities, and fiber-optic cable.
Now it is time to harness the power of partnerships to leverage resources and fully develop our creative capital. We need to build a 21st-century infrastructure as part of our renewal – recycled wastewater for landscaping, desalinated water for reliable drought protection, and regional cooperation on groundwater storage; buried utility lines to eliminate the risk of power outages and wildfires; and Silicon Valley-type solutions for broadband access and high-speed Internet for information distribution and entertainment.
The Challenge Ahead
Rebuilding Montecito to create 21st-century efficiencies under the ground, while protecting and preserving Montecito’s charming village feel will be a challenge. There are severe limitations on both the will and the wallet that will take ingenuity and creative thinking to resolve.
The choice of how to rebuild Montecito is ours. Let us not only accept that challenge but also embrace it. Let’s celebrate our traditions and at the same time begin the process of forward thinking. Let us agree that neither fire, nor mud or flood, nor gloom of night, shall stay us from this appointed task.
That task is to leave our children a better Montecito than the one we inherited. That’s the same challenge that faced the residents of Santa Barbara after the earthquake of June 29, 1925, that began at 6:44 am, lasted 19 seconds, killed 19 residents, and destroyed downtown Santa Barbara. The city rose from that disaster and become even stronger and more beautiful.
Are we any less capable than those undaunted forebears?