Could a mudslide in Montecito like last year’s happen again?

Homes were completely wiped out at the corner of Olive Mill and Hot Springs Road in Montecito during last year’s debris flow. Photo credit Kathryn Barnes.

Rain showers and thunderstorms used to bring relief for drought-stricken Santa Barbara. But after the mudslides in Montecito one year ago, many residents feel nervous and anxious every time they see an approaching storm. That led Cassandra C. Jones from Ojai to ask Curious Coast this question.

“Could mudslides happen again during the next big rain? And if so, how long before that is no longer a threat? I can’t think of anything scarier than something like that happening again in that area. I have friends there and I worry about them.”

The short answer to the first question is yes. Mudslides can happen during any big rain event, as long as certain conditions are met. According to the National Weather Service, rainfall at the rate of .8 inches an hour could trigger another debris flow this winter.

Image Not Available
Homes were completely wiped out at the corner of Olive Mill and Hot Springs Road in Montecito during last year’s debris flow. Photo credit: Kathryn Barnes.

Former fire chief Pat McElroy knows all about the dangers. He was set to retire just before the devastating floods of January 2018.

“As long as you have this completely burned landscape with these type of mountains and what one geologist said is an inexhaustible supply of debris, we're still at risk, until the vegetation grows back and the hillsides stabilize,” he said. That process takes an average of five years, and the risk level goes down each consecutive year.

Pat McElroy stands in front of a creek in Montecito where the debris flow tore through last year  Photo credit: Paul Wellman/Santa Barbara Independent

In the meantime, McElroy is helping out. Since the aftermath, he helped launch a nonprofit called the Partnership for Resilient Communities, which in December received approval to install debris nets. McElroy says that after much research, nets were the best way to go when protecting against future debris flows.

“A lot of the stuff is either impractical, too expensive or too invasive,” he said, “we felt this was, in terms of an environmentally sensitive community like Santa Barbara, our best option.”

The nets, which look like large metal fishing nets stretched across canyons, are made by Access Limited out of Oceano, CA. Currently, the company has 41 nets in various places across the state and has had success using debris nets in Camarillo Springs, protecting a gated community from debris after the 2013 Spring Fire. On Catalina Island, nets protected the town of Avalon from debris flows after the 2007 Island Fire. Once the risk went away, the nets were taken out. In Santa Barbara, the county has mandated that the nets must be removed after five years, once vegetation on the hills have grown back.

Metal debris nets like this one installed in Camarillo Springs after the 2013 Spring Fire catch debris before it reaches residential areas. Photo courtesy of KANE GeoTech

A series of 11 nets will cost $5.4 million to install, plus an additional $2 million if the nets wind up catching debris in a future storm and need to be cleaned. Two of the nets will be installed at Cold Springs Canyon, two at San Ysidro, and seven in Buena Vista Canyon.

The funding is coming from private donors, along with the state and FEMA.

Initially, the nonprofit wanted to install 15 nets, but four of them would be on federal land at Hot Springs and Romero Canyons and getting approval for those will take longer.

A culvert along Olive Mill Road in Montecito clogged with debris last year. Photo credit: Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department

But what of the other burn areas, like Carpinteria, Goleta, and Ojai? According to Tom Fayram, who oversees the County Flood Control District, those areas are not as vulnerable because of geography.

“Montecito is in a very precarious position, because you go from 3,000-foot mountains to the ocean, and the urban area is very close to the base of the hills,” he said. “In Carpinteria, it's a little bit different. The mountains, particularly the mountains where the fire was, are several miles inland.”

So what can you do to stay safe? Create an evacuation plan and sign up for the county’s Aware and Prepare emergency alert system, which issues warnings by phone or text. Currently less than a quarter of Santa Barbara county residents are signed up for the service.

A new state law authored by State Senator Hannah Beth Jackson allows counties to automatically enroll residents in emergency notifications, while preserving their ability to opt out of receiving the alerts, but it has not yet been implemented.



Ted Mills