Montecito Community Emerges Strong from Major Test of 5th Anniversary Storm

By Sharon Byrne   |   January 17, 2023

The following was written after having to evacuate rapidly, with no warning, at 1 pm on January 9, 2023, from the lower Mission Creek area, where I live. Sunday night, it was a bucolic stream. It turned torrential a few hours later and turned my street into a swift river.

For the past five years, I’ve worked with the Montecito community on storm safety, never dreaming I’d have to drop everything and evacuate. I want to thank Montecito Fire and Montecito Journal for knowing my situation, and offering to give me a ride-along to see the aftermath of the storm so as to document it here.

Aaron Briner, my terrific Montecito Fire Protection District (MFPD) guide, came to get me, since my car would not make it out of our mud-covered street. Thankfully, he had a tall vehicle. The city did not evacuate my street. Many of my neighbors lost their cars as the water flowed up over them.

Like many of us, I will never forget January 9, 2018. After a December spent choking on the apocalyptic ash of the Thomas Fire, rain was coming. What seemed like a panacea to California’s first giga-fire instead unleashed the deadly Debris Flow disaster for the Montecito Community.

As the winter storm season cranked up on this 5th year anniversary of the Debris Flow, many of us were sweating on the inside. Montecito had a saying: “If we can just make it through the 5th year…” The 1969 Debris Flow happened five years after the massive Coyote Fire. We all just wanted to skate safely past that marker.

Mother Nature had other plans. Rain steadily deluged the Central Coast since New Year’s Day. California is too much and too little, all at once. Too little rain means drought, dry creeks, stressed trees. Too much rain saturates the earth, dislodging boulders that apparently yearn to get to the beach. Around New Year’s, a few boulders fell off hillsides onto cars at popular trailheads.

We were already saturated heading into that five-year mark. We evacuated on January 4. Communities get evacuation fatigue, though the intent is of course to save lives. As January 9 dawned, an intense storm loomed. We can all be forgiven for wanting to scream at Mother Nature, “Seriously?!? NOW?!?”

Aaron, who can go anywhere, got me out of the mud on my street, and onto the empty 101. It was surreal, like the pandemic again. Eerily quiet and strange. We saw miles of the cars and trucks forced off at Milpas Street, only to be turned back around. Drivers slept in their trucks and cars overnight, on the side roads. So many people got caught in this storm.

January 9 unfolded less smoothly than public safety officials probably would have liked, keenly aware of the heavy emotional import of the day. A flash flood warning was issued by the National Weather Service, and at 11 am we were told to shelter in place. During that press conference, calls erupted for flooding on East Mountain, Romero, and a water rescue in Toro Canyon. Officials had to issue a call to evacuate at noon, but lower roads were quickly flooding. Many got out in time. Some turned around and went back home. Others, not near any waterways or mountains, stayed put.

Aaron kindly showed me the historical trouble spots for Montecito: mud on Olive Mill, closure at Coast Village, trucks stacked from the freeway closure, and flooding at La Vuelta and Hixon, where some cars went underwater. The Romero Canyon debris basin overflowed, rendering that road impassable in the storm. A section of East Mountain Drive collapsed, and there was small debris on Ashley. A large tree branch was caught in the storm gate in the creek at Casa Dorinda. The Cold Spring Debris Basin had a lot of boulders, and a clean-out crew from the county were at hand.

In the sunshine, good news was evident everywhere in Montecito! The debris basins did their job, newly packed with 500,000 cubic yards of material. No major mud or debris hit the community, and most thankfully, no loss of life. No boulders were straining the ring nets. Utility and County crews were out all over Montecito, fixing any problems. Neighbors were out walking dogs in the sunshine.

This was a mega storm, dumping 12 inches on Montecito alone. It also had vast reach. Ventura’s river flooded and shut the freeway. The Santa Ynez River swelled to its full height. The 154 and 101 at Gaviota experienced major slides, forcing closure.

Montecito was in great shape. It felt like all that work we’ve all done to harden the community was successful. The watershed HELD. Psychologically, we held. We might be annoyed by evacuations and road closures, but we can be relieved at how it turned out. 

We’ve lived through far worse, after all.

We’ve become far stronger than we ever knew we could be.

Our public safety agencies have ramped up significantly since 2018. They held timely press conferences. They made hard calls. Montecito Fire staged all over the community, Aaron shared with me, heading into this storm, as they had done 1/9/2018, and it worked. They were everywhere they needed to be when things broke open. The calls were high, beginning that morning. Most of the rain was supposed to come in from 1 to 6 pm. MFPD crews got cut off on Mountain Drive when the road collapsed, and then the other direction quickly became impassable. But they handled the calls. All of them. The 101 fully reopened by 5 pm Tuesday night. Remember when clearing the freeway took weeks in 2018? This time it took mere hours because Caltrans staged our area in advance.

By contrast, the city of Santa Barbara experienced major flooding, didn’t warn anyone to evacuate, and cleared no mud from its deluged streets on the East and West sides of town the next day. When Aaron dropped me off, we both realized my neighborhood was in far worse shape than Montecito.

More storms are headed this way. We will face them together, prepared and strong. 

That’s the Montecito Way.  

Sharon Byrne is the Executive Director of the Montecito Association


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