Montecito Needs Your Help Now

By Bob Hazard   |   January 24, 2019

If you do nothing else this week, pull out your pen and write a check to the Partnership for Resilient Communities, or go to the website ( to make a tax-deductible donation through the Santa Barbara Foundation. Contributions can be as low as $10 or as high as $250,000. The future of Montecito may depend upon it. Here is why…

Assessing the Community Risk

Last week’s mandatory evacuation was but one warning that Montecito’s steep canyons remain at high risk for debris flows. “The threat of a repeat debris flow is real for at least the next five years,” according to Thomas Dunne, Professor of Hydrology & Geomorphology at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. “Urgent action is needed to protect life and property in Montecito,” says Dr. Matthias Jacob, Principal Geoscientist, BGC Engineering and author of Debris Flow Hazards and Related Phenomena.

With this past week’s rains, the current Montecito debris basins have filled to 33% of their capacity but did not overflow. Heavy equipment has been busy removing rocks and other debris from existing basins, preparing us for the next storm. An added level of protection is needed now in order to slow down the velocity of any potential debris flow and to catch debris before it hits the basins. 

New News from the Partnership for Resilient Communities

After spending 37 years with the City of Santa Barbara fighting fires, including five years as Chief, Patrick McElroy announced his retirement five hours before the Thomas Fire and one month before the 1/9 debris flow. Chief McElroy, who planned a carefree retirement, calls the Montecito debris flow, “the most important experience of my life.”

There are more than a dozen deserving men and women who volunteered to form the Partnership for Resilient Communities, but none more critical to its success than its executive director, the affable Irishman, “Pat Mac.”

The Partnership team is inking final agreements with three private landowners, including Ty Warner, for two steel mesh ring net installations above the San Ysidro Ranch on San Ysidro Creek; with the Mary K. Robinson Living Trust for two sites on Cold Spring Canyon; and with the Thomas and Peggy Pollock Trusts for up to seven sites on Buena Vista Creek. The plan is to install the first six nets right now – two on each of the three creeks, with the possible addition of five more nets on Buena Vista Creek, which has no County debris basin protection. The agreements with the private landowners are backed by $37 million in insurance policies to protect landowners from liabilities and lawsuits.

The Partnership is working with the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies to secure permits for additional nets on federal lands in upper Hot Springs and Romero Canyons.

A number of environmentally friendly steel GeoBrugg debris nets, designed in Switzerland and manufactured in Albuquerque, New Mexico are being ordered at an installed cost of $4.3 million. Delivery is expected within two to three weeks. Each net is being engineered and built for a specific location. Seventy-one locations were studied, classified, and considered for nets by engineering experts working for the Partnership. The seven planned nets on Buena Vista Creek will have a holding capacity of 38,560 cubic yards of debris, compared to no debris basin protection today. The two nets in San Ysidro Canyon will almost double the capacity of the existing debris basin, and the two nets in Cold Spring Canyon will increase debris basin capacity by 75%.

The Installation Process

So-called “Spyder Rigs” from Access Limited Construction in San Luis Obispo are being dropped by helicopter from staging areas on Camino Cielo Road into the first six selected locations. Access Limited specializes in rockfall mitigation, difficult access drilling, and installations in remote areas. Eight anchors are being drilled into each side of the canyons to a depth of 20 feet at each of the six sites. Because of a lack of access roads, the actual nets will be dropped in by helicopter and can be attached to the anchors in one to two days. The need for speed is critical. The emergency permits for the nets expire February 21.

Removal of Nets

As a condition of permitting, funding had to be provided for removal of the nets at the end of five years; removal of any debris within 72 hours of inspection after each storm; and routine inspection and maintenance of the nets every two weeks. These environmental protection requirements add another $2 million to the original $5 million budget for the first 11 ring net installations.


The Montecito community has already contributed over $3.3 million in voluntary funding. The County is contributing moral, technical, and environmental support, but no money. Another $2 million in community funding is urgently needed to finish the installation of the first six nets.

Many potential donors have waited to see if the project would become a reality. Almost everyone doubted that emergency permitting from agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Water Quality Control Board, the U.S. Forest Service, and the County of Santa Barbara, that normally take six to ten years of environmental review, could be approved in eight weeks. Other potential donors believed that permitting was impossible on federal or state land, and that private landowners would unlikely give permission for fear of liability lawsuits. Both assumptions proved to be wrong. The Partnership’s “Miracle of Montecito” is about to become a reality.

So, open your wallets and give generously. The $5 million cost for the first nets will double our debris flow protection and represents the cost of one home lost in a debris flow. The “cash-strapped” County and the Army Corps of Engineers have done their best to clear channels widened by last year’s storm and line them with boulders. Our small and inadequate debris basins were hurriedly cleaned before last year’s tragic flow but proved inadequate to capture or slow the flow of killer debris. It is unnerving to recall that two of our debris basins were actually scheduled for removal because they were believed to be harmful to fish, according to a plan released by the County six months before January 9, 2018.

Edison Sues Santa Barbara County

Last Friday, Southern California Edison, besieged by lawsuits claiming that an electrical short caused the Thomas Fire, sued Santa Barbara County over the 2018 mudslides on the basis that despite decades of warnings, neither the County nor the State built adequate catchment basins and channels, built bridges too low for flood flows that became clogged with debris; and failed to evacuate residents when the storm was approaching. Edison contends that poor planning by County Public Works and Flood Control prior to the Montecito mudslides directly and proximately caused all or some of the damages that plaintiffs now seek to recover from Edison. The Edison claim is supported by the recent LA Times investigative journal report and other media documenting the County’s failures. 

Nets to Lower Insurance Costs

The insurance industry is looking to California and Montecito, trying to decide how to deal with coverage in disaster-prone areas for new homeowner flood and earthquake insurance policies. Lawsuits and countersuits only fan the fears of insurers deciding whether or not to exit from a chaotic marketplace.

Our job is to show insurers and potential new residents that we are resilient. We are a concerned community that is voluntarily helping insurers and homeowners reduce their risks by making Montecito safer and more secure. Please make a private tax-deductible donation now. Give what you can.

To find out more you can e-mail either or Hollye Jacobs at, or go directly to the website, click on “donate” and make a tax-deductible donation to the Santa Barbara Foundation.

You can also simply drop off or mail a check, payable to Resilient Communities, at the offices of Joe Cole, Attorney, 1482 East Valley Road, Montecito, 93108, in the Upper Village, a few doors north of the Post Office.


You might also be interested in...