Wednesday, September 22, 2021     Volume: 22, Issue: 29

Santa Maria Sun / Breaking News

First responders scramble to respond to mudslides


The fires that scorched swaths of Santa Barbara County may have finally been extinguished or contained, but emergency responders are already reacting to what’s come next.

Floods, debris flows, and rock falls, all are in play as heavy winter storms arrive over the next few years due to massive burnt areas from the Thomas and Whittier Fires, according to Tom Fayram, the county’s Public Works deputy director.

“This isn’t rocket science: We know there’s going to be a problem if we have rainfall of any significance,” he told the Sun on Jan. 4. “There’s no magic pill to make his go away.”

On Jan. 8, the first large storm of the year made landfall, bringing with it heavy rains that triggered flooding and mudflows in Montecito, Summerland, and Carpinteria. As of the Sun’s press time, county fire officials said at least 17 people had died due to the storm overnight. The rains damaged multiple homes, stranded drivers, and left thousands without power in Santa Barbara County. The floods and debris flows forced officials to close Highway 101 from Highway 125 in Ventura to Milpas Street in Santa Barbara.

Fire crews responded to multiple missing persons reports in the early morning hours of Jan. 9 when mudslides caused by heavy rain runoff destroyed homes in Montecito, Carpinteria, and Summerland. First responders pulled multiple people from debris piles and wrecked or flooded homes.

That same morning, county CEO Mona Miyasoto requested that the county Board of Supervisors ratify an emergency proclamation in response to the flooding at their regular meeting.

She said she spoke with county Fire Chief Eric Peterson, who confirmed the fatalities and said the department had requested 10 helicopters, two search and rescue task forces, and six additional strike divisions, which consisted of around 30 fire trucks and crews.

“There’s been reports of missing persons, and everyone is out in the field assisting in those search and rescues,” Miyasoto added. “I know there’s been a queue of calls for search and rescue, and they have been working on all of them.”

Before the storm made landfall, the county declared mandatory evacuation orders for unincorporated areas, as well as Montecito, Summerland, and Carpinteria. All areas suffered from increased vulnerability due to the past summer’s Whittier Fire and the recent Thomas Fire.

The two blazes burned a combined 300,000 acres, with the Thomas taking the vast majority at more than 281,000 acres, the largest fire in recorded California history.

The damages and risk areas affected by that historic fire’s aftermath is staggering.

“Every major drainage, cold springs, hot springs to the east and all way to county line has been severely impacted—take the Jameson Watershed, it was completely cooked,” Fayram said on Jan. 4. “It’s hard to quantity. We don’t have an exact science to say, ‘Here’s where the problem is going to be and here’s where it’s not,’ because really the whole Montecito-Carpinteria valley area is now—because of the magnitude of the [Thomas] Fire—in a risk area. Even if your house is up on the top of a hill, all the roads in the transportation network, including Highway 101, is at risk here.”

He said that while areas around the Alamo Fire northeast of Santa Maria would be impacted, the concern lay in the areas mainly around the Thomas and Whittier fires due to their proximity to homes and population centers.

“It’s just not the same magnitude as the Thomas Fire: the extent burnt, the type of vegetation, and rainfall rates,” Fayram explained. “The rainfall in that area is just significantly less than in the mountains above Santa Barbara—we can see rainfall that’s on the top of the mountains that’s double what is down by the cities or an area like Santa Maria.”

The result is water flows rushing down from the high country at unprecedented speeds. What would normally take more than a day for the water to reach the “front country,” or developed land below the mountains along the coast, could now occur in as little as 15 minutes.

By Jan. 9, Fayram’s warnings became reality, with flood waters and mud already destroying homes and making travel nearly impossible for some county residents. That morning, the National Weather Service reported that Montecito received more than a half inch of rain in five minutes and nearly an inch in 15 minutes in Carpinteria. More than an inch fell in the Carpinteria area in a span of just 30 minutes, while Matilija Canyon in the mountains near Ojai saw nearly an inch and a half in just one hour. 

Fearing the worst 

At a Jan. 5 press conference in Carpinteria, Kevin Cooper of the U.S. Forest Service’s Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team said that the chief concern was a combination of increased soil erosion on steep slopes, sedimentation in streams, mudflows, and rock falls that could damage roads, property, and limit escape routes. All are due to vegetation and organic matter in the soil being scorched by high temperatures from the fires.

Jason Kean, a research hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), told the Sun that heat from such fires changes the soil’s properties so water can’t infiltrate it as well as it would under normal conditions. He said the water-repellent soil was also more prone to erosion.

“You are breaking those bonds in the protective layer of the soil—the microfibers that were in the soil—that’s gone,” Kean said.

Even worse, he added, the areas where organic matter has survived are still hazardous because that matter secretes a waxy substance that prevents water from seeping into the soil.

These factors, coupled with the steep mountainous slopes common in Southern California and along the central coastline, create conditions for floods and debris flows—a mixture of water, rock, and sediment. The flows occur after water rushes down the slopes and picks up material along the way.

Stay updated
Alerts, evacuation orders, and info on storm hazards is available at the 211 helpline, Santa Barbara County’s website at, or toll free at (800) 400-1572. Emergency alerts from the county are available at

Santa Barbara County officials released a map on Jan. 5 highlighting high risk areas in the event of a storm, which encompass large chunks of Highway 101, including Carpinteria and Montecito. Another area of concern is El Capitan Canyon, west of Goleta, which in January 2017 suffered severe flooding and debris flows following the Sherpa Fire. Last year’s deluge washed out several cars in the canyon; some were pushed so far by the water they reached the Pacific Ocean.

That same canyon suffered more burn scars during the Whittier Fire seven months later.

By noon on Jan. 9, all of the aforementioned areas had been impacted by the rains with flooding and debris flows.

“So, you’ve got a combination of steep slopes, high-fire frequency, and lots of people. That’s why Southern California has these problems a lot,” Kean said, adding that just a half inch of rain could trigger a debris flow, flood, or mudslide.

“That is a garden variety storm,” he added. “That can happen easily.” 

Prepping for disaster 

As firefighters slowly pushed the Thomas Fire into the high country and the Los Padres National Forest, county and federal emergency response crews kicked into gear. The BAER team led by Cooper and the Forest Service scrambled to survey forest lands while Cal Fire’s Watershed Emergency Response team handled the majority of the front country.

Santa Barbara County’s Fayram said Public Works’ focus building up to the storm was on clearing drainage basins near homes and neighborhoods to help direct the excessive water and debris flows when they inevitably came.

Even then, however, the basins can only divert so much, and the ones the county dug out over the past few years will fill up fast, especially following a fire.

“The idea is we try to catch as much as the big stuff there as we can,” Fayram said, explaining that the largest basins were only a few thousand cubic yards in volume. “But they aren’t of a size that would have a real material effect.

“If we get the rainfail that could trigger a flood or debris flow, there’s no stopping it.”

Kean said crews could utilize different barriers to deflect smaller flows, “but big flows you really can’t control. They’re gonna go wherever they want to go.”

Some of the barriers could even get ripped up and become part of a river of debris heading downstream, he said.

Evidence of such activity could be seen on the morning of Jan. 9. At the 300 block of Hot Springs Road in Montecito, debris and mudflows heavily damaged homes and made the roads in the area virtually impassable.

On Jan. 7, Santa Barbara County issued a mandatory evacuation order for unincorporated parts of the county, Montecito, Summerland, and Carpinteria, instructing residents to be out the next day by noon. Voluntary evacuation orders also went out for areas around the Alamo Fire like Tepusquet Canyon. Authorities then canceled a community meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. that day.

The meeting was to serve as an informational session about the risk hazards associated with winter storms. The buildup to the storm also appeared to highlight that despite emergency crews and officials being aware of the imminent problems, there was little they could do in the time allotted except pick up the pieces after the damage had already been dealt.

“It’s coming,” the USGS’ Kean said on Jan. 5, “so we have to be on our toes.”

Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) told the Sun in a statement on Jan. 8 that he was committed to bringing federal resources to aid recovery efforts on the Central Coast.

“As large mudslides threaten homes and residents, I am grateful that the federal major disaster declaration issued last month includes grant funding for mitigation and restoration in the wake of these dangerous floods,” he said.

The aid that does eventually come will only be able to repair the aftermath from this week’s storm.

“The scope of this thing is beyond what anyone could imagine,” Fayram said.

Staff writer Spencer Cole can be reached at

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