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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on May 9th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 10 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 19, Issue 10

Santa Barbara County says watersheds recovering slowly from fires

By SPENCER COLE

The areas in Santa Barbara County adjacent to lands damaged by recent wildfires will be at risk for years, according to county, state, and federal officials.

"We are experiencing very slow [vegetation] regrowth unfortunately," U.S. Forest Service Biologist Kevin Cooper told the county's Board of Supervisors during a meeting on May 1. That day, Cooper presented the federal Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) report, which examined the immediate impacts to Forest Service lands following the Thomas and Whittier fires.

He said the charred earth had been stripped of the majority of its vegetation due to the high heat from the blazes, and the rest was washed away in the accompanying rainstorms that triggered the deadly Montecito mudflows.

"We are looking at slower than normal recovery," he added, noting that typically by this time of year, a burned area would have seen as much as 70 percent regrowth of native plants. However, the timing of the Thomas Fire in late December gave Mother Nature a small window to bring in replenishing rains.

"This puts us in a position that we are looking at similar types of risks [for debris flows] next winter," Cooper said, noting that thus far, vegetation recovery was somewhere around 10 percent.

As for the Whittier Fire, the Forest Service reported significant recovery (up to 50 percent) on the blaze's north slope. "Which is much, much better than the Thomas Fire," Cooper said, "and so we're looking at some reduction in the potential for flooding in that area."

The Santa Ynez Mountains' southern slopes affected by the Whittier saw little recovery, however, and still bring considerable risk for future debris flows and flooding pending intense rain events.

"We're not out of the woods entirely," Cooper said.

Cal Fire also conducted its own report on areas impacted by the past summer's fires with their Watershed Emergency Response Team (WERT).

"It's very difficult to determine the flow paths and the interaction of those processes with roads, bridges, and homes," WERT leader Drew Coe said, adding that his team had identified some 178 "values" or private properties, neighborhoods, and structures at risk in the county from the fires.

Officials noted that no BAER or WERT report work was completed on the Alamo Fire burn areas near Twitchell Dam because the land was not federal and had not burned severely enough for Cal Fire to conduct a study.

"The Alamo Fire is outside the flood control district," Deputy Director of Water Resources Tom Fayram said, adding that some debris flows impacted Tequsquet Creek but had been "very minimal when compared to the Thomas Fire."

Jeremy Lancaster, a senior geologist with California Geologic Survey, told the supervisors that debris flows following a fire were fairly common occurrences. He said there had been 63 fires since 1913 in the areas between Gaviota to the Ventura County line.

"Many of these have been sort of the basis for flash floods causing a post-fire debris flow," he said.

Lancaster called the Montecito rain storm that triggered the January mudslides a "maximum magnitude event," but noted "smaller events will still damage homes and take lives." He said the watershed recovery for most of the county would take at least two to five years.

"Clearly we have the potential for more debris flows, and the magnitude for those debris flows could be different," said Rob Lewin, director of the county's Office of Emergency Management, "but it doesn't take a [maximum] magnitude event to be deadly."




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