Montecito Is Leading the Way

By Sharon Byrne   |   October 26, 2021

Montecito always was a place of talent, care, resources, and community. There are a lot of smart, accomplished people making this beautiful place their home. It has also suffered its share of disaster, with the biggest fire in California history at the time — the Thomas Fire in December 2017. That fire has now dropped to No. 9 in rankings, given California’s propensity for giga-fires of late. The debris flow on January 9, 2018, tragically took 23 people too soon from this community. In the aftermath, a new sense of community was born, one that comes together to solve its toughest problems, led by those talented smart people living here. You may not be aware of just how much your community has faced, or the way it’s leading us into a better a future for us all.

Resilience and Infrastructure to Keep Us Safe for the Future

Gwyn Lurie, Joe Cole, and Alixe Mattingly joined forces in 2018 to pursue the funding and installation of steel mesh ring nets above Montecito in the canyons over our creeks to prevent large boulders from rolling down in the next deluge. In the Thomas debris flow, boulders the size of cars plowed through this community. Basically, these folks were going to try to stop the mountains from rushing to the sea: a Herculean task. Some $6 million and relentless partnerships later, the Partnership for Resilient Communities achieved their goal. Now when it rains, many of us breathe a sigh of relief, knowing those are up there.

Curtis Skene was washed out of his Randall Road childhood home for the second time on the morning of January 9, 2018. The first time was in 1969, and they rebuilt. This time the whole road was devastated. Curtis knew it was time to do something and began pursuing the idea of a massive debris basin to catch boulders and overflow from the San Ysidro Creek. The community across the street from Randall Road, Glen Oaks, suffered huge losses in the debris flow. 

Curtis worked with Tom Fayram of Santa Barbara County Flood Control to get the land purchased, and that involved FEMA grants and the assistance of U.S. Congressman Salud Carbajal and then-California Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson. The excavation is happening now, though one property owner does not want to contribute their property to the basin. That’s heading to court, and this has been a long process, requiring incredible stamina on the part of Skene. The Randall Road Debris Basin will be natural and shielded with plants when complete, and protect downstream neighbors from debris flows and flooding, a huge relief.

Staying with infrastructure, the Montecito Water and Sanitary Districts are partnering up to pursue recycled water. This is major. California just recorded the driest year in a century, and a severe drought has been declared by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Every drop literally counts. California is likely to mandate the end of ocean discharge of treated sewage water in the near future. Getting ahead of that order would be a great move for Montecito. We currently discharge 500,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater a day into the ocean. The city of Santa Barbara discharges 6,000,000 gallons per day. Recycled water could be used for landscaping, which helps reduce our fire danger.

Our Montecito Fire Department pursued Cal Fire grants to hire sheep to eat up high in our canyons to reduce danger of wildfire. They’ll also come visit your property and help you identify how to better fireproof your home. The city of Santa Barbara was not able to do this, despite intense interest and effort. Our fire chief Kevin Taylor tried to assist, but their permitting process was too onerous.

At the Montecito Association, we pioneered Hands Across Montecito, a project made up of volunteers and partner agencies that outreach to people experiencing homelessness in our community and moves them indoors. We reunite people with their families when appropriate. We have placed two individuals into permanent housing here and have three more who’ve received housing vouchers. One of our graduates, Andrew, started Earthcomb, to pick up litter, and hire people experiencing homelessness. He’s worked for Heal The Ocean and will be heading up a Beautification Day project to clear abandoned camps in Montecito. We’re really excited about this project. After we started the Hands project, the county and city created similar models with our partner agency CityNet. One reason Hands has been so successful is a team of committed Montecito volunteers who go on outreach, know the individuals we work with, and identify people we need to approach. It’s amazing what a community can do!

Then there’s traffic congestion, and we’re going to pull together a major effort on it. With freeway accidents that required shutting down lanes or the entire 101, we’ve experienced complete gridlock in Montecito. That’s dangerous heading into winter, where we could face an emergency evacuation. We’re going to bring Caltrans, CHP, County Public Works, the 101 Project team, sheriffs, and more together on November 3 to figure out how we can stage construction projects to leave arterial roadways open, and how we will handle an event like a freeway closure in combination with an emergency situation. The meeting will be on Zoom and open to the public, so you’re welcome to attend. For more info, email


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