As Montecito continues to heal from last year’s devastating debris flow, county officials are wary of a new storm system moving into the county on Friday.
Santa Barbara County Water Resources Director Tom Fayram said the watersheds above Carpinteria and Montecito are in year two of a five-year recovery cycle from damage sustained during the Thomas Fire in December 2017.
The fire stripped the soil of vegetation that would normally prevent rain from hitting the ground directly and potentially causing a debris flow.
“We’re in a vulnerable time. And what the scientists tell us is hey, anytime you get, at this point in where the watershed is, 0.8 inches (of rain) per hour or more hey that’s the time to really be concerned. You could have debris moving down those channels. And it’s not unlikely,” added Assistant County Executive Director Matt Pontes.
At the time of last year’s debris flow National Weather Service and county scientists estimated a debris flow threshold of half an inch of rain per hour.
While that number continues to increase as the forest canopy continues to regrow, the county has already hit the new debris flow threshold once this rainy season.
In late November, a winter storm deposited 3,500 cubic yards of debris in the San Ysidro and Cold Springs debris basins. Mr. Fayram said weather service models predicted the rainfall rate would remain under .8 inches per hour, but the rate climbed slightly higher at the peak of the storm.
The County Office of Emergency Management monitored the storm to determine whether emergency operations were needed, but the debris basins held and no further action was taken other than some emergency notifications.
“If things got even more intense, then there would have been a discussion about well what do we do. You don’t want to have people start moving in the middle of the risk that you’re trying to keep them out of,” said Mr. Pontes who admitted storms aren’t always predictable and residents should have an escape route and emergency safety area in their home ready to respond to an OEM warning.
He also urged them to subscribe to county emergency text alerts atawareandprepare.org
National Weather Service meteorologist Kristen Stewart said a Friday evening low pressure system is expected to cause rain rates around half an inch per hour. She said those estimates could climb up to the debris flow threshold as their models develop later in the week.
Weather service meteorologist Cathy Hoxsie explained the strongest part of the storm expected to hit off the coast, but there is still a possibility of it coming onto shore.
“It is absolutely possible that we get higher intensity than what we had Saturday,” said Ms. Stewart. Last weekend’s storm caused rainfall rates around .43 inches per hour in the Thomas Fire burn area.
Mr. Fayram said the county has spent over $1 million dollars clearing and repairing the debris basins, spillways and nearby facilities after the debris flow last year and have conducted periodic clearings since then.
Crews performed a touch up on the basins after the November storm and county officials are in the process of re-evaluating the basin levels in preparation for Friday.
“We will be doing that this week. We have a big storm coming up this weekend so we’ll determine which one of these basins if any will need to go in and remove some material out,” said Mr. Fayram.
In order to increase future debris flow mitigation the county is in the process of obtaining funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to make improvements to three debris basins above Montecito and create a new basin on San Ysidro Creek below the current San Ysidro basin. Once funding is secured the project could take three to five years to complete.
“We’re trying to improve our debris catching capacity with that extra basin and also redesign the existing basins so they trap more of the rocks and let more of the fine-grain sediment go through. You fill the basin with mud and all the rock goes over the top, what’s the point?” said Mr. Fayram.
He explained ideally, a debris basin will catch rocks and bigger debris, letting water and silt continue their natural flow through creeks and into the ocean.
In the weeks after the debris flow, County officials reported 111 homes destroyed and around 300 more were damaged.
County Planning and Development Deputy Director Jeffrey Wilson said the spectrum of home rebuilding is still very broad and there is no overall trend yet.
“Every case is different. Some homeowners have been more engaged and they are farther along, and others are still in the process of deciding what they want to do to the property,” said Mr. Wilson.
Around 70 percent of homeowners have responded to county attempts to assign them a case manager in person or by phone resulting in 290 active rebuild cases and 34 closed cases.
Case workers help homeowners with permitting and any rebuild related research they need.
Cases close when a homeowner has either completed the work they intend to put into the home or the building is demolished.
So far the county has received 25 permit requests for residential demolitions and three for new building permits. Two new building permits have been assigned so far.
Mr. Wilson said the county is committed to assigning case workers until every destroyed or damaged home has an open case with the county.