County officials hold winter preparedness webinar to outline potential risks
Significant regrowth has occurred in the foothills and canyons above Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria three years after the devastating Thomas Fire and subsequent debris flow, though the areas are still at risk for future events.
Last week, county emergency officials were joined by fire, flood control and weather specialists to discuss the ongoing potential for disaster, while also outlining the progress that has occurred in these areas.
Kevin Cooper, a biologist with the Montecito Fire Protection District who has been tracking the vegetation growth in the burn scar for the past several years, shared a series of images that showed the recovery in areas above the coastal communities.
“We’re on track to hit that five to seven year… full recovery to pre-fire conditions of the watershed here,” he said.
The fire ripped through the vegetation and left the soils totally unprotected. When high-intensity rain events were to occur, which are described as anything more than a half-inch per hour after a fire, the rain moves down very quickly, mixing into the sediment in the channels and serves as a precursor to local debris flows.
Through satellite surveillance, the use of drones and foot traffic through these areas, specialists have observed significant regrowth, therefore reducing the risk to residents.
The first rain season, in 2018, there was almost no vegetation and soils were exposed. The second rain season produced about a 35% canopy cover, up to 50% in some areas, and the third year there was nearly 80 to 90% canopy cover.
Now entering the fourth rain season, there is about 85 to 100% canopy cover, he said.
“We’d like to remind you that even without a fire, we have had debris flows in this county, but we have come a long way since the fire burned through that area and expect to see a lot of protection from that vegetation there,” Mr. Cooper said.
County Flood Control engineering manager Jon Frye recalled the Coyote Fire in 1964, which led to a debris flow in the first winter following the blaze, as well as another event four and a half years later.
“I think it’s important that we all remain vigilant and understand that we’re entering into winter four after the Thomas Fire as well, so recognize that these are high-hazard areas and we all need to remain alert,” he said.
Mr. Frye highlighted six debris basins, including two proposed basins that will be constructed in the next few years.
The county has received a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to construct a debris basin along Randall Road, which is scheduled for construction in 2021 and on target. A second proposed basin, the Buena Vista Creek debris basin, did not have an associated date, though Mr. Frye said the county has applied for a FEMA grant that is still under review.
He went on to outline some of the projects that have occurred or are planned for the Cold Springs, San Ysidro, Romero and Santa Monica debris basins.
The Cold Springs debris basin was expanded a few months ago, while additional improvements are planned for that basin, as well as the three others, over the next two years.
Eric Boldt, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, gave an overview of the weather conditions expected as the county enters its rain season.
Since Oct. 1, the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport had received just 0.05 of an inch of rain, some 3.5 inches below normal. The next 14 days expect to remain dry, though significant winds are expected.
“We still have this ongoing, persistent fire season,” Mr. Boldt said. “Until we see more rain, we need to be concerned about winds and fires.”
The long-term forecast for January and March also shows below-normal rainfall, though some storms are still expected to occur. If the rain events were to come one after another in a short period of time, issues could arise. Mr. Boldt estimated that with a series of storms in the upper watershed with 10 inches or more accumulating above Montecito, there could be more runoff through the river systems.
Montecito Fire Protection District Chief Kevin Taylor showed the storm impact map produced by Atkins Engineering, the same firm that has produced the previous three risk maps. The number of “red areas,” or those at risk of flooding or debris flow, is significantly lower than in previous years.
The newly unveiled map showed 445 parcels in the Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria areas. This compared to 517 parcels a year ago, and 1,508 parcels two years ago.
“Our take away from this year’s scientific analysis is that we are still at risk for debris flow and will be for at least five years after the Thomas Fire,” he said.
Residents are encouraged to visit www.readysbc.org and use the interactive map to determine if they may be at risk.
Last year, the watershed and flood control systems performed very well in handling the storms and no evacuation orders were issued. While no two storm events are the same and the watershed responds differently to each, residents are advised to remain vigilant.
“Because our highest risk is at the tail end of a saturation event, we do not anticipate issuing protective action orders as the result of a single storm,” Chief Taylor said.
While recognizing the inconvenience that evacuations pose, Chief Taylor said the department’s top priority is protecting the community, something all county partners take very seriously.
Chief Deputy Craig Bonner, of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, outlined what steps would be taken if evacuations were to be required. He explained the county’s “Ready! Set! Go!” plan that should be followed if orders are made.
The “Ready!” portion is when there is a weather advisory in place, typically two to three days before a storm. Residents should make plans for getting out, while also having considerations because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the “Set!” portion, some 24 to 48 hours before a storm event, residents should fill up their gas tanks, collect important documents and be prepared to leave. Those who feel unsafe even though no orders may be issued should leave immediately, he said.
The “Go!” portion is for when evacuations are ordered. While county officials will try and notify residents up to 24 hours before orders are called for, residents should be ready to leave and take steps to protect themselves and get to safety as quickly as possible.
Residents are urged to sign up for emergency notifications through readysbc.org and Nixle in order to stay informed, officials said.
Thursday’s webinar opened with a recorded message from 1st District Supervisor Das Williams, who explained the importance of remaining prepared.
“Although it’s been three years since the fire and almost three years since the subsequent debris flow, I know it feels like yesterday,” said Mr. Williams. “In that time, we’ve been working very hard to create the right kind of resiliency projects, the right kind of flood control projects, in order to increase our safety as a community.”
While work has been done to mitigate the risks associated with flooding and debris flow, he stressed that risks still remain.
“It’s important to keep in mind that the recovery of the watershed takes some time, and it’s not where it needs to be yet, and that risk is not yet eliminated,” he said.
“I know that crisis fatigue is real,” he explained. “I feel like we’ve been in crisis mode almost continuously for three years. But it’s really important to know that as we make progress on these improvements and as the regrowth continues to happen, the risk will be reduced. It’s also… just really important for me to tell you what an honor it is to represent such a resilient community.
“I’ve seen the outpouring of generosity, the outpouring of empathy, and community spirit in the last three years. It’s important that even if we fight for improvements, that we also do so in other areas, not just in disaster planning. So please, keep wearing those masks and keep on trying to avoid indoor gatherings… take precautionary quarantine methods.
“We are still in crisis mode and still in this together.”
To view the maps or to learn more about hazard preparedness, visit https://readysbc.org.