Saving the Future

By Bob Hazard   |   May 3, 2018

Last week, an overflow crowd turned out at the Granada Theatre for a community conversation titled “Drought, Fire and Flood: The New Normal sponsored by the UCSB Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, the Santa Barbara Museum of National History, the Santa Barbara Foundation, and the Community Environmental Council. Moderating this Town Hall event was Steven Gaines, dean of the UCSB Bren School.

Key Speakers

All the Town Hall speakers were informative, especially USCB professor Max Moritz, biogeographer and fire expert who spoke on the science of wind, fuels, and human ignition sources, as well as Pat McElroy, recently retired Santa Barbara Fire chief. However, two speakers dominated the evening program: 1) Dr. Edward Keller, who has been researching the natural landscape above Montecito for the past 45 years while teaching geology at the UCSB Bren School, and 2) keynote speaker James Lee Witt, who headed FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) beginning in 1993 during the eight-year Clinton administration. Witt was the first director of the FEMA agency to have emergency management experience. He is credited with staffing the agency with professionals rather than political patrons. 

Debris Flow Science

Dr. Keller noted that what came down from the Montecito mountains at 3:30 am on January 9 was not a mudslide, but a debris flow of gigantic proportions that carried centuries of accumulated boulders from fire-ravished foothills, crashing down on unsuspecting and sleeping residents in a torrential river of mud so thick it resembled liquid concrete more than water. When the deluge reached bridges and culverts, it clogged underpasses and drainage pipes with trees, downed telephone poles, and rocks, forcing the flow out of its natural banks, rising 10 to 20 feet to go up, over, and around these man-made barriers. The noise generated by the 35-mph flow resembled a runaway freight train.

A month before the storm of January 9, the December Thomas wildfire left the top few inches of the front country seared into a fine, crumbly powder. The sustained heat cooked the chaparral, coaxing from it a waxy liquid that oozed onto the soil and functioned like a conveyor belt, capable of hoisting huge boulders. A half-inch of rain in five minutes unleashed a downhill demolition derby equivalent to 10,000 John Deere tractors, dumping boulders and debris on Montecito in a milkshake of mud with all its fury. 

A Rare Event?

According to Keller, what happened in Montecito on January 9 was a confluence of three variables: a high-intensity rainstorm following on the heels of the largest wildfire in state history in an area of Santa Barbara County buffeted by years of drought. 

Millions of tons of sediment and boulders were brought down on January 9, but more remains in stream channels and hanging off vertical walls left behind by the high velocity of the debris flow.

The debris flow in Montecito was admittedly a rare event, but not so much so. Last year after the Sherpa Wildfire, a rain-driven debris flow swept five cabins off their foundations at the El Capitan campgrounds and carried 15 cars into the viscous soup of El Capitan Creek. A similar debris flow created the geologically young boulder field at Rocky Nook Park, right past the Santa Barbara Mission at the entrance to Mission Canyon near the Museum of Natural History. 

Reducing Impacts

Since leaving FEMA, former director James Lee Witt has served as a consultant on more than 350 natural disasters all over the world. He referenced what we have learned from other disasters, and locally, what we can do to combine science and technology to reduce the impact of future occurrences. 

In other disasters, roughly 20 percent of local businesses have not survived the aftermath. Tourists choose other destinations until all aspects of the disaster have been physically removed. Tax rolls have been drastically reduced, making remedial funding far more difficult. Witt warned that the longer we wait to take action, the less chance we will have of receiving federal emergency funding.

We need to make good decisions now about how to stabilize our mountain range. If done correctly, every dollar spent on prevention can save $7 in potential losses. Montecito is built almost entirely on multiple layers of debris flow fans. The challenge in Montecito is the complex overlapping of creek channels, including Cold Spring, Hot Springs, and Montecito Creek System; the San Ysidro Creek System; and the Romero Creek System. 

The Partnership

For Montecito, Witt suggests the formation of a coalition of public and private resources. One such partnership is now being crafted by a non-profit, public-private Partnership for Resilient Communities, with Witt serving as a paid consultant. 

Key players include Brett Matthews, Montecito entrepreneur skilled in public-private partnerships; Joe Cole, attorney and Montecito Planning commissioner; McElroy, former Santa Barbara Fire chief; Gwyn Lurie, chair, Montecito Union School Board of Trustees; Les Firestein, innovator, screenwriter, and producer; Mary Rose, political consultant; and a host of other backers and financial supporters. On the public side of the projected partnership are Das Williams, 1st District County supervisor; Mona Miyasato, Santa Barbara County executive; and Matt Pontes, assistant County executive officer.

The goal of this public-private partnership is to identify scientific research and technological solutions from around the world and to develop a menu of options that can be implemented immediately and longer-term. The partnership will be charged with realistically forecasting costs, identifying funding sources, and applying for grants through public and private sources. The key is to establish solid ties to the community, the county, the state, and the feds including the U.S. Forest Service. 

To shorten the time frame, the partnership has already agreed to supplement the financially constrained county with professional disaster recovery personnel funded by the partnership. More about this unique effort will be forthcoming in next week’s editorial.

The task will not be easy. Federal funding is scarce and limited. In 2017, this country alone experienced 60 disasters that exceeded a billion dollars in costs. Insurance reserves are low. Family resources are constrained. Like the volunteer efforts of Abe Powell and his partners in the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade, future recovery efforts will require the mobilization of committed volunteers with resources supplied by this community.

Witt closed his remarks at the Town Hall meeting with this admonition: “If you are not a partner in planting the trees of the future, you do not deserve to stand in the shade.”


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