All I Want for Christmas… Is to Keep Our Community Safer

By Bob Hazard   |   December 12, 2019

Last week, several hundred Montecito residents turned out at Montecito Union School to hear Kevin Taylor, Montecito Fire Protection District (MFPD) chief, plus a parade of six county officials, provide an update on Winter Storm Readiness in Montecito.

 Montecito Fire Chief Taylor served as “Unified Commander” during the December 2017 Thomas Fire, as well as the lethal debris flow on January 9, 2018. He distinguished himself by proving to this community that he is far more than a local fire chief. Taylor understands that community safety and security is the number one public issue in Montecito. He appreciates that the potential threat of flood, mud, and multiple evacuations has replaced fire as our number one concern. Perhaps most importantly, he believes strongly in community partnerships as the best way to solve community problems.

Future Community Evacuations

According to Taylor, the previously designated “Debris Flow Risk Maps” have been renamed and repositioned as the more modest “Storm Impact Consideration Maps.” Formerly, evacuation maps indicated extensive “Red Zone” or extreme risk parcels with debris flows carrying boulders and assorted debris, overtopping stream banks, pummeling homes, and creating havoc and destruction. “Yellow Zones” or high-risk parcels, were homesites where creeks and channels could leave their regular course and isolate residents. “Grey Zones” were high-risk parcels near the burn area subject to possible debris flows carried down the watercourses from fire ravaged canyons.

Nearly half the homes in Montecito fell into one of these three categories, or some 2,000 homes. Later map revisions eliminated the grey and yellow zone distinctions, reducing the mandatory evacuation down to some 1,508 parcels, including residents in Montecito, plus a few outlier parcels in Summerland and Carpinteria. Last week, the number of mandatory evacuation parcels indicated on the new maps declined from 1,508 to 517, a welcome reduction of some two-thirds.

Owners of the 991 homes and businesses that were released from a probable mandatory evacuation notice group, their real estate agents, and their insurers, were overjoyed at their reclassification to a safer designation. The 517 remaining homes and businesses mostly border Montecito’s seven creeks and canyons or were located in fanned-out alluvial plain locations where most of the flood and flow damage occurred. Caught in the evacuation designation handicap were two of the three Montecito luxury resorts – the Four Seasons Santa Barbara Biltmore and the iconic San Ysidro Ranch –saved from fire only to be ravaged by flood and mud. Both were closed for extensive time periods and the Biltmore suffered multiple evacuation of all guests at times of full occupancy, discouraging future group bookings.

For those in the mandatory evacuation zones, access to local roads in Montecito will be closed off by the California Highway Patrol two hours before a projected major storm that reaches the necessary threshold of eight to ten inches in one to two days from intense storms, or a high intensity downpour of short duration embedded in a saturation rainfall event. Voluntary evacuation notices have been eliminated in red zones. Personal discretion is not an option. Law enforcement will go door to door to enforce the evacuation notice. The new Storm Impact Consideration map is available at Enter your address and you are immediately informed of the status of your residence and your neighbors’.

Reasons for Optimism in Montecito

So far in this rainfall year which started October 1, Montecito has received some four inches of rain from four storms. In most cases, our watershed appears to be absorbing the majority of the moisture. Cleared and wider creek beds have easily accommodated the added flows. Rocks, boulders, and tree damage has been minimal. This same pattern occurred in the water year October 1, 2018 to September 30, 2019 when vegetation in the fire scarred areas was less robust and therefore more dangerous.

First District Supervisor Das Williams promised Montecito homeowners that our county government partners will continue to work to provide new debris flow protection, despite the county’s budget woes. The County lacks adequate cash to repair local roads and fire and flood mitigation while supporting its underfunded generous pensions and lifetime retirement healthcare obligations.

Some attendees last Thursday felt a sense of “déjà vu” when county flood control staff rushed to clean brush and debris from debris basins, creek channels, bridges, and culverts in the areas surrounding State Route 192 in the aftermath of the Cave Fire last month.

Vegetation Recovery

Kevin Cooper, a retired employee of the Forest Service and now a consultant to Santa Barbara Fire, provided an assessment of watershed recovery, and especially regrowth on the mountain and in the fire-scarred canyons. Cooper reported that vegetative recovery after one year was a disappointing 35 percent, but in Cold Spring and other canyons, growth since February 2018 has approached the 80 to 90 percent recovery level, much stronger than the 65% forecasted for the end of year two after the Thomas Fire.

Seasonal Rain Forecast

Eric Boldt of the National Weather Service in Oxnard reported that so far California has experienced 70 percent of normal rainfall this year, thanks to three winter atmospheric rivers, which used to be called “the Pineapple Express.” Several storms in a row are referred to as “saturation storms” where up to 10 inches of rain over several days can produce debris flows that are more commonly caused by short violent bursts of 0.5 inches to 0.8 inches per hour. Bolt predicts dry weather from now until after Christmas, followed by a rainy season that is forecasted to be on the drier side, with a yield of about 70 percent of normal rainfall.

Debris Basin Maintenance

Jon Frye, Santa Barbara County Flood Control Engineering Manager, praised the county for its post-debris flow cleanout of the San Ysidro, Cold Spring, Romero, and Montecito Creek basins in the last 12 months. He also noted that in the 2021-2022 time period, the county hopes to expand the Cold Spring Basin; complete the Randall Road property purchase and build a new debris basin; and improve the Santa Monica Basin in Carpinteria.

Looking Forward

Serious questions remain to be answered by local leaders. Why did the positive contribution of ring nets, paid for by Montecito private donor volunteers, not even get a mention last Thursday by any county employee except for Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Taylor?

Why have recommendations by the Corps of Army Engineers to develop adequate debris basins in Montecito since the days following completion of the Santa Monica debris basin, not been pursued by the county planners in assessing the flood safety of Montecito?

Why has adequate county funding for creek channel clearing and debris basin maintenance for Montecito been ignored for the last decade?

Why were local Montecito residents forced to dip into their own pockets to privately raise nearly $6 million in funds to pay for engineering design, permitting, purchase, and installation of steel ring nets without one dime of county money?

Why have the publicly funded six ring nets, that are alleged capable of doubling the catch capacity of Montecito’s inadequate debris basins, been permitted for only one to three years and potentially must be removed before they are really tested by a significant storm event?

The goal for each of us is to keep our community safe. On our second anniversary of the worst twin natural disasters in Montecito’s history, we are much safer, but we are still at risk, especially from a saturation event or a flash flood warning. Resilience has brought us this far. The need now is to complete the task, working together cooperatively.

In closing, here is my positive weather prediction for the coming Christmas and Hanukkah seasons: “Heavy showers of blessings to all, including neighbors and public servants who strive to keep us safer; strong winds to blow your worries away, especially for small businesspersons trying to survive in a fast-changing Montecito marketplace; followed by warm hugs to put a smile on your face because life is too short to deal with people who are miserable.”


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