A Beneficial Debris Basin but No Silver Bullet

By Gwyn Lurie   |   April 29, 2021

I’m sure anyone who lived here in 2018 feels a wave of relief as they drive by the soon-to-be active construction site at East Valley Road and Randall Road – where a (once) tranquil neighborhood is about to be transformed into a debris basin. It’s also bittersweet because many of us knew Randall Road residents who suffered incredible loss in our January 9, 2018 post-Thomas Fire debris flow. Melinda Burns’ excellent piece about the new debris basin on page 12 recounts some of that tragedy. 

While the new basin will be important as part of a patchwork of mitigations concerning our local fire-flood cycle, it’s also important to distinguish between a patchwork and a solitary patch. The debris basin is a silver lining to our 2018 tragedy; however, it is not the silver bullet that we all seem to crave. 

 If we have learned anything from that terrible night three-plus years ago and many catastrophic events since, it’s that complex problems usually require complex rather than immediate solutions, even though many of us have become accustomed if not addicted to a 1-Click world. 

In Montecito’s particular case, our patchwork quilt of solutions to mitigate future debris flows would include enhanced weather monitoring and evacuation protocols, and possibly more active management of the vegetation on our mountains. It behooves Montecito to have a long-term view and a wide one in terms of managing our terrain.

On the plus side of the ledger, I found the many programs put forth by “ordinary” Montecitans (is there such a thing?) after our January 9, 2018 disaster to be not just inspiring but reusable, transferable. And isn’t it possible, even likely, that some of our world’s other most daunting multi-headed problems – the pandemic, our planet’s climate, race, and income inequality – would also benefit from reduced expectations that complicated problems can be solved with 1-Click?

This is not to take away from the utility of enhanced debris basins, or the hard work behind the creation of ones like that for which a ribbon will soon be cut at Randall Road; nor the importance of more active management of our storm drainage, and the addition of strategically placed debris nets, and so forth. However, in hindsight, my biggest takeaway from the weeks and months that followed January 9, 2018, is that there was no solace in “waiting for the cavalry,” but there was much that we in this community could do for ourselves. I learned that hidden behind our tall hedges and long driveways is Montecito’s greatest resource: our human resource, our community. At the end of the day, WE were the cavalry. The bad news was we had to pull together and rescue ourselves. But the great news was that we got to pull together and rescue ourselves.

With most problems, even the most complex, there is much we can do by activating ourselves, and by coming together. And I guess that’s okay because while Montecito is sure pretty enough, turns out she doesn’t make a great damsel in distress. •MJ


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