Red Zone Blues

By Bob Hazard   |   December 22, 2019

A question one often hears in Montecito this summer involves home real estate values within the dreaded “red zone.” Those currently in the red zone, whose homes were untouched by the 1/9 debris flow, ask how can they have their homes removed from the punitive evacuation red zone.

To better understand the “red zone” and its implications, I sat down with the new Montecito Fire Chief, Kevin Taylor, a talented and respected disaster planning expert. My first surprise was learning that there is not one, but three different emergency maps for Montecito, each with a different purpose and each with its own set of restrictions. My second lesson was that a “debris flow” and a “flood flow” are not the same thing, and that they exhibit very different behaviors. Outlined below are the three interactive maps that affect Montecito:

Debris Flow Risk Map (Aka “Red Zone Map”)

What is the purpose of the Debris Flow Risk Map?

The Debris Flow Risk Map identifies properties in Montecito and nearby communities that may be at risk from a catastrophic debris flow. The map is utilized by local emergency managers to determine what portions of the community need to be evacuated when a high intensity, short duration rainfall that could induce a repeat debris flow is forecast by the National Weather Service.

Who has the responsibility for the Debris Flow Risk Map?

The Montecito Fire Protection District (MFPD) under the leadership of Kevin Taylor, Montecito Fire Chief, in partnership with the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and the Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Protection District, oversees the Debris Flow Risk Map. 

How is the Debris Flow Risk Map created?

The Debris Flow Risk Map with its mandatory evacuation zones is a scientific assessment, geospatially represented on an interactive map, of our entire community’s potential risk in a future debris flow. It is used by the Storm Risk Decision Team to determine what areas of the community will be under a mandatory evacuation order during a particular storm event.

What are the goals of the MFPD Debris Flow Risk Map?

The goals of the Debris Flow Risk Map are to ensure public safety, evacuate only when necessary, evacuate only those areas necessary, evacuate for the shortest time possible, return people home as soon as possible and provide the community with clear, timely information and rationale for evacuations.

When will the Debris Flow Risk Map be updated?

Scientists and technical advisors will begin gathering additional data at the end of this month. A new Debris Flow Risk Map will be published for the Montecito community no later than mid-November. Community meetings and a door-to-door campaign of affected properties will follow.

Who will update the Debris Flow Risk Map?

The Montecito Fire Department, in partnership with the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and the Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Protection District, has engaged Atkins Engineering to update the Debris Flow Risk Map. Atkins developed the current version of the map, published in the fall of 2018, which can be viewed at

Why is the Debris Flow Risk Map being updated?

The Debris Flow Risk Map is being updated to reflect several positive changes that have occurred over the past twelve months. The watershed regrowth continues to regenerate and recover from the Thomas Fire, providing much more soil stability that will reduce the risk of future debris flows. Our creek channels have been widened by the storm and both creek beds and debris basins have been better maintained after each storm by Santa Barbara County Flood Control District.

Our communities benefited from these improvements during the most recent storm season when all debris stayed within the creek channels. Additionally, Debris Flow Ring Nets have been installed in three canyons by the Partnership for Resilient Communities,further enhancing our community’s safety by catching and holding debris before it reaches populated areas.

Flood Maps

There are two additional emergency maps, the FEMA Recovery Map, used in the rebuilding of damaged or destroyed homes in Montecito, and the FEMA FIRM Map for the purchase of federal flood insurance.

FEMA Recovery Map

What is the purpose of the FEMA Recovery Map?

The purpose of the FEMA Recovery Map is to facilitate the safe rebuilding of Montecito homes damaged or destroyed by the Thomas Fire and/or the 1/9 flood and debris flow. The map enables county planners to make site-specific elevation adjustments, which will protect homeowners from future risk in designated flood zones.

Who has the responsibility for the FEMA Recovery Map?

Responsibility for creating and distributing the FEMA Recovery Map lies with the County of Santa Barbara under the leadership of Tom Fayram, Deputy Public Works Director.

Who will use the FEMA Recovery Map?

The FEMA Recovery Map is used by county planners charged with oversight of home rebuilding projects to create awareness of potential flooding risk and to provide the necessary elevation data for safer construction of rebuilt homes.

If a new construction rebuild is like-for-like, the homeowner can avoid current MBAR (Montecito Board of Architectural Review) concerns of neighboring view planes if the rebuild needs to be shifted to a higher elevation building pad, or if the foundation is raised on the same pad. Homeowners can likewise avoid the expense of an MPA (Montecito Planning Association) review.

Where did the FEMA Recovery Map data come from?

Santa Barbara County planners use the updated elevation information generated from post-debris LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) imaging, plus their own calculations and assessments, to rebuild stronger, safer communities with reduced vulnerability to future disasters. 

Does the FEMA Recovery Map impact insurance rates or coverage?

The county insists that its FEMA Recovery Map does not impact flood insurance risk or insurance premium calculations, and there is merit to that. However, the FEMA website contains the statement: “Flood hazard maps are used for insurance planning and floodplain management purposes.” Insurance companies, deciding on renewal of individual homeowner higher-risk policies, or whether to exit high-risk markets, have access to these maps in their policy and marketplace decision-making. Therefore, public access to the FEMA Recovery Map can influence the behavior of insurance companies.

When will the FEMA Recovery Map be updated by FEMA and re-released?

A new FEMA Flood Map that will replace the current “Recovery Map,” is still several years away. Collection of new LiDAR topo is now in progress.

FEMA FIRM MAP for Federal Flood Insurance

What is the purpose of the FEMA FIRM map?

The FEMA FIRM (Flood Insurance Rate Map) is used to market federal flood insurance. Digital versions of these maps are called DFIRMs. As a Montecito homeowner or business, you can access a DFIRM map to get a reliable indication of what flood zone you’re in. Maps are constantly updated. For the latest determination, contact your insurance agent, insurer or your community floodplain manager. 

Who has the responsibility for the FEMA FIRM Map?

Responsibility for creating and distributing the FEMA FIRM Map lies with FEMA and the NFIP (National Flood Insurance Program), with local input from the County of Santa Barbara under the leadership of Tom Fayram, Deputy Public Works Director.

Do I have to buy FEMA flood insurance?

If you live in a designated Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) or have received disaster assistance in the form of a federal grant or loan, you must protect your building with flood insurance for as long as you own it. Should you sell the building, you are required to inform the new owner of the necessity to purchase and maintain flood insurance.

If you DO NOT live in a Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) but instead in a moderate-to-low risk area, federal law does not require flood insurance; however, a lender can still require it. Since historically about one-in-four flood claims come from these moderate-to-low risk areas, FEMA flood insurance is recommended. If during the life of your loan the FEMA FIRM Map is revised and the property is moved into the high-risk area, your lender will notify you that you must purchase flood insurance.

Where can I buy FEMA flood insurance?

Flood damage is not typically covered by a standard homeowners’ insurance policy. Contact your insurance agent for information about how to purchase FEMA flood insurance, or call the FloodSmart Agent Referral Call Center at 1-888-379-9531.

What is the maximum amount of FEMA flood insurance a homeowner can buy?

The upper limit of FEMA coverage is $250,000 on the residence, plus $100,000 on the contents. This is not adequate for replacement of a typical home in Montecito. The cost of maximum FEMA flood protection runs about $480 per year. 

How do I request a change to my flood zone designation?

If you believe your property was incorrectly included in SFHA, you may submit an application to FEMA for a formal determination of the property’s location and/or elevation relative to the SFHA.


So, what do all these maps say about the value of your home?

Will we forget mandatory evacuations in the next three years or will this become a permanent yoke around the neck of anyone who owns property in the designated “red zone”? Our guess is that the “red zone” will eventually join the Passenger Pigeon and other celebrated things and events of the past remembered and then quickly forgotten. The insurance companies, however, may take a little longer to forget, as they’ll want to hang on to those boosted premiums, but in the end – especially as new competition enters the territory – their memories will fade, too.


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