STORM WATCH 2019: Will the evacuations ever end?
How long are we going to have to live like this?
It’s a common refrain every time authorities warn that a strong storm is bearing down on the South Coast.
The root cause, of course, is the Thomas Fire, the devastating blaze that destroyed homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and left the ground so scorched that it’s having a hard time absorbing rain. That’s especially scary for Montecito, which suffered unthinkable loss both property and human one year ago.
Tuesday’s storm, which prompted Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown to issue the first evacuation order since March 2018, didn’t live up to its billing. But that didn’t stop “fire agencies and other public safety officials” in consultation with the sheriff to call off the evacuation just eight hours after it went into effect.
Will it always be like this? Are the hillsides so bare of anything capable of holding water that rain-related evacuations have, as Deputy Brice Bruening told the News-Press as he notified people to leave Montecito Tuesday morning, “become a part of our culture here?”
Or, do the hillsides tell a different story? Is the “new normal” becoming the “old normal” again? If so, how long will it take?
As far as Santa Barbara County Public Works deputy director Tom Fayram can see, even as the burn areas recover evacuations will be in the cards in the foreseeable future.
“It all depends on the forecasted intensity. So until the threshold changes we plan to stick to those standards,” he said.
The U.S. Geological Survey’s threshold of .5 inches of rain per hour immediately following the Thomas Fire and Jan 9. debris flow has since risen to .8 inches per hour, and are expected to increase again come 2020.
“It definitely will next year,” Mr. Fayram told the News-Press.
This is supposed to occur as vegetation on the ravaged hillsides is restored. Someone familiar with the current state of the burn scars near Montecito told the News-Press that the hillsides remain stripped bare and that significant re-growth has been scant due to a lack of rainfall over the summer. Montecito Fire Protection division chief of operations Kevin Taylor concurred and said the Forest Service’s Burn Area Emergency Response team “reported at end of growing season that soil recovery over the summer was very low due to drought and soil loss.”
Because the growing season ends around August, Mr. Taylor said there won’t be further updates on revegetation until late spring. While normal recovery for a burned watershed takes between 3 and 5 years, drought conditions are likely to prolong it to between 5 and 7 years. Still, Mr. Taylor called it a “fair assumption” that rainstorms’ potential for risk to the community will decrease the further from the fire we get.
Similar to Mr. Fayram, former Santa Barbara Fire Chief Pat McElroy said that evacuations will continue so long as weather predictions call for them, even though they may not ultimately be as significant as forecasted.
“Unfortunately weather predictions aren’t an exact science. It’s not always going to play out the way it’s anticipated,” he said.
As the News-Press reported in December, Mr. McElroy currently leads the Partnership for Resilient Communities, a nonprofit working to install 11 metal GeoBrugg nets in three of the highest risk canyons above Montecito. It may not negate the need for evacuations, but Mr. McElroy explained that the nets are meant to slow down debris flows and lessen their impacts, not stop them altogether.
“Our hope is to see if these nets will at least slow down or mitigate the debris flow,” he said.
Thursday’s rain marked the end of the wet spell for now, but El Nino conditions could bring more precipitation next month. AcccuWeather senior meteorologist Jack Boston said Santa Barbara is currently experiencing a “weak-to-moderate” El Nino, which may bring one or two weather systems to Santa Barbara during the second week of February. Though Mr. Boston said the El Nino would continue to linger thereafter, the rest of February and all of March are expected to be dry.
However, National Weather service meteorologist Joe Sirard told the News-Press that the conditions in Santa Barbara according to the Climate Prediction Center are “El Nino Watch.”
“We are in El Nino conditions, but it needs to be sustained to a certain length of time to be classified as ‘El Nino,'” he said.
Mr. Sirard said a full-fledged El Nino is predicted to form in the spring.