Geography

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Just before it started, the geology meeting at the Santa Barbara Central Library on Thursday looked like this from the front of the room (where I also tweeted the same pano):

Geologist Ed Keller

Our speakers were geology professor Ed Keller of UCSB and Engineering Geologist Larry Gurrola, who also works and studies with Ed. That’s Ed in the shot below.

As a geology freak, I know how easily terms like “debris flow,” “fanglomerate” and “alluvial fan” can clear a room. But this gig was SRO. That’s because around 3:15 in the morning of January 9th, debris flowed out of canyons and deposited fresh fanglomerate across the alluvial fan that comprises most of Montecito, destroying (by my count on the map below) 178 buildings, damaging more than twice that many, and killing 23 people. Two of those—a 2 year old girl and a 17 year old boy—are still interred in the fresh fanglomerate and sought by cadaver dogs. The whole thing is beyond sad and awful.

The town was evacuated after the disaster so rescue and recovery work could proceed without interference, and infrastructure could be found and repaired: a job that required removing twenty thousand truckloads of mud and rocks. That work continues while evacuation orders are gradually lifted, allowing the town to repopulate itself to the very limited degree it can.

I talked today with a friend whose business is cleaning houses. Besides grieving the dead, some of whom were friends or customers, she reports that the cleaning work is some of the worst she has ever seen, even in homes that were spared the mud and rocks. Refrigerators and freezers, sitting closed and without electricity for weeks, reek of death and rot. Other customers won’t be back because their houses are gone.

Highway 101, one of just two freeways connecting Northern and Southern California, runs through town near the coast and more than two miles from the mountain front. Three debris flows converged on the highway and used it as a catch basin, filling its deep parts to the height of at least one bridge before spilling over its far side and continuing to the edge of the sea. It took two weeks of constant excavation and repair work before traffic could move again. Most exits remain closed. Coast Village Road, Montecito’s Main Street, is open for employees of stores there, but little is open for customers yet, since infrastructural graces such as water are not fully restored. (I saw the Honor Bar operating with its own water tank, and a water truck nearby.) Opening Upper Village will take longer. Some landmark institutions, such as San Ysidro Ranch and La Casa Santa Maria, will take years to restore. (From what I gather, San Ysidro Ranch, arguably the nicest hotel in the world, was nearly destroyed. Its website thank firefighters for salvation from the Thomas Fire. But nothing, I gather, could have save it from the huge debris flow wiped out nearly everything on the flanks of San Ysidro Creek. (All the top red dots along San Ysidro Creek in the map below mark lost buildings at the Ranch.)

Here is a map with final damage assessments. I’ve augmented it with labels for the canyons and creeks (with one exception: a parallel creek west of Toro Canyon Creek):

Click on the map for a closer view, or click here to view the original. On that one you can click on every dot and read details about it.

I should pause to note that Montecito is no ordinary town. Demographically, it’s Beverly Hills draped over a prettier landscape and attractive to people who would rather not live in Beverly Hills. (In fact the number of notable persons Wikipedia lists for Montecito outnumbers those it lists for Beverly Hills by a score of 77 to 71.) Culturally, it’s a village. Last Monday in The New Yorker, one of those notable villagers, T.Coraghessan Boyle, unpacked some other differences:

I moved here twenty-five years ago, attracted by the natural beauty and semirural ambience, the short walk to the beach and the Lower Village, and the enveloping views of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which rise abruptly from the coastal plain to hold the community in a stony embrace. We have no sidewalks here, if you except the business districts of the Upper and Lower Villages—if we want sidewalks, we can take the five-minute drive into Santa Barbara or, more ambitiously, fight traffic all the way down the coast to Los Angeles. But we don’t want sidewalks. We want nature, we want dirt, trees, flowers, the chaparral that did its best to green the slopes and declivities of the mountains until last month, when the biggest wildfire in California history reduced it all to ash.

Fire is a prerequisite for debris flows, our geologists explained. So is unusually heavy rain in a steep mountain watershed. There are five named canyons, each its own watershed, above Montecito, as we see on the map above. There are more to the east, above Summerland and Carpinteria, the next two towns down the coast. Those towns also took some damage, though less than Montecito.

Ed Keller put up this slide to explain conditions that trigger debris flows, and how they work:

Ed and Larry were emphatic about this: debris flows are not landslides, nor do many start that way (though one did in Rattlesnake Canyon 1100 years ago). They are also not mudslides, so we should stop calling them that. (Though we won’t.)

Debris flows require sloped soils left bare and hydrophobic—resistant to water—after a recent wildfire has burned off the chaparral that normally (as geologists say) “hairs over” the landscape. For a good look at what soil surfaces look like, and are likely to respond to rain, look at the smooth slopes on the uphill side of 101 east of La Conchita. Notice how the surface is not only a smooth brown or gray, but has a crust on it. In a way, the soil surface has turned to glass. That’s why water runs off of it so rapidly.

Wildfires are common, and chaparral is adapted to them, becoming fuel for the next fire as it regenerates and matures. But rainfalls as intense as this one are not common. In just five minutes alone, more than half an inch of rain fell in the steep and funnel-like watersheds above Montecito. This happens about once every few hundred years, or about as often as a tsunami.

It’s hard to generalize about the combination of factors required, but Ed has worked hard to do that, and this slide of his is one way of illustrating how debris flows happen eventually in places like Montecito and Santa Barbara:

From bottom to top, here’s what it says:

  1. Fires happen almost regularly, spreading most widely where chaparral has matured to become abundant fuel, as the firefighters like to call it.
  2. Flood events are more random, given the relative rarity of rain and even more rare rains of “biblical” volume. But they do happen.
  3. Stream beds in the floors of canyons accumulate rocks and boulders that roll down the gradually eroding slopes over time. The depth of these is expressed as basin instablity. Debris flows clear out the rocks and boulders when a big flood event comes right after a fire and basin becomes stable (relatively rock-free) again.
  4. The sediment yield in a flood (F) is maximum when a debris flow (DF) occurs.
  5. Debris flows tend to happen once every few hundred years. And you’re not going to get the big ones if you don’t have the canyon stream bed full of rocks and boulders.

About this set of debris flows in particular:

  1. Destruction down Oak Creek wasn’t as bad as on Montecito, San Ysidro, Buena Vista and Romero Creeks because the canyon feeding it is smaller.
  2. When debris flows hit an obstruction, such as a bridge, they seek out a new bed to flow on. This is one of the actions that creates an alluvial fan. From the map it appears something like that happened—
    1. Where the flow widened when it hit Olive Mill Road, fanning east of Olive Mill to destroy all three blocks between Olive Mill and Santa Elena Lane before taking the Olive Mill bridge across 101 and down to the Biltmore while also helping other flows fill 101 as well. (See Mac’s comment below, and his link to a top map.)
    2. In the area between Buena Vista Creek and its East Fork, which come off different watersheds
    3. Where a debris flow forked south of Mountain Drive after destroying San Ysidro Ranch, continuing down both Randall and El Bosque Roads.

For those who caught (or are about to catch) Ellen’s Facetime with Oprah visiting neighbors, that happened among the red dots at the bottom end of the upper destruction area along San Ysidro Creek, just south of East Valley Road. Oprah’s own place is in the green area beside it on the left, looking a bit like Versailles. (Credit where due, though: Oprah’s was a good and compassionate report.)

Big question: did these debris flows clear out the canyon floors? We (meaning our geologists, sedimentologists, hydrologists and other specialists) won’t know until they trek back into the canyons to see how it all looks. Meanwhile, we do have clues. For example, here are after-and-before photos of Montecito, shot from space. And here is my close-up of the latter, shot one day after the event, when everything was still bare streambeds in the mountains and fresh muck in town:

See the white lines fanning back into the mountains through the canyons (Cold Spring, San Ysidro, Romero, Toro) above Montecito? Ed explained that these appear to be the washed out beds of creeks feeding into those canyons. Here is his slide showing Cold Spring Creek before and after the event:

Looking back at Ed’s basin threshold graphic above, one might say that there isn’t much sediment left for stream beds to yield, and that those in the floors of the canyons have returned to stability, meaning there’s little debris left to flow.

But that photo was of just one spot. There are many miles of creek beds to examine back in those canyons.

Still, one might hope that Montecito has now had its required 200-year event, and a couple more centuries will pass before we have another one.

Ed and Larry caution against such conclusions, emphasizing that most of Montecito’s and Santa Barbara’s inhabited parts gain their existence, beauty or both by grace of debris flows. If your property features boulders, Ed said, a debris flow put them there, and did that not long ago in geologic time.

For an example of boulders as landscape features, here are some we quarried out of our yard more than a decade ago, when we were building a house dug into a hillside:

This is deep in the heart of Santa Barbara.

The matrix mud we now call soil here is likely a mix of Juncal and Cozy Dell shale, Ed explained. Both are poorly lithified silt and erode easily. The boulders are a mix of Matilija and Coldwater sandstone, which comprise the hardest and most vertical parts of the Santa Ynez mountains. The two are so similar that only a trained eye can tell them apart.

All four of those geological formations were established long after dinosaurs vanished. All also accumulated originally as sediments, mostly on ocean floors, probably not far from the equator.

To illustrate one chapter in the story of how those rocks and sediments got here, UCSB has a terrific animation of how the transverse (east-west) Santa Ynez Mountains came to be where they are. Here are three frames in that movie:

What it shows is how, when the Pacific Plate was grinding its way northwest about eighteen million years ago, a hunk of that plate about a hundred miles long and the shape of a bread loaf broke off. At the top end was the future Malibu hills and at the bottom end was the future Point Conception, then situated south of what’s now Tijuana. The future Santa Barbara was west of the future Newport Beach. Then, when the Malibu end of this loaf got jammed at the future Los Angeles, the bottom end of the loaf swept out, clockwise and intact. At the start it was pointing at 5 o’clock and at the end (which isn’t), it pointed at 9:00. This was, and remains, a sideshow off the main event: the continuing crash of the Pacific Plate and the North American one.

Here is an image that helps, from that same link:

Find more geology, with lots of links, in Making sense of what happened to Montecito. I put that post up on the 15th and have been updating it since then. It’s the most popular post in the history of this blog, which I started in 2007. There are also 58 comments, so far.

I’ll be adding more to this post after I visit as much as I can of Montecito (exclusion zones permitting). Meanwhile, I hope this proves useful. Again, corrections and improvements are invited.

30 January

 

Montecito is now a quarry with houses in it:

So far twenty dead have been removed. It will take much more time to remove twenty thousand dump truck loads of what geologists call “debris,” just to get down to where civic infrastructure (roads, water, electric, gas) can be fixed. It’s a huge thing.

The big questions:

  1. Did we know a catastrophe this huge was going to happen? (And if so, which among us were the “we” who knew?)
  2. Was there any way to prevent it?

Geologists had their expectations, expressed as degrees of likelihood and detailed on this map by the United States Geological Survey:

That was dated more than a month before huge rains revised to blood-red the colors in the mountains above town. Worries of County Supervisors and other officials were expressed in The Independent on January 3rd and 5th. Edhat also issued warnings on January 5th and 6th.

Edhat’s first report began, “Yesterday, the National Weather Service issued a weather briefing of a potential significant winter storm for Santa Barbara County on January 9-10. With the burn scar created by the Thomas Fire, the threat of flash floods and debris/mud flows is now 10 times greater than before the fire.”

But among those at risk, who knew what a “debris/mud flow” was—especially when nobody had ever seen one of those anywhere around here, even after prior fires?

The first Independent story (on January 3rd) reported, “County water expert Tom Fayram said county workers began clearing the debris basins at San Ysidro and Gobernador canyons ‘as soon as the fire department would let us in.’ It is worth noting, Lewin said, that the Coast Village Road area flooded following the 1971 Romero Fire and the 1964 Coyote Fire. While touring the impact areas in recent days, (Office of Emergency Management Director Robert) Lewin said problems have already occurred. ‘We’re starting to see gravity rock fall, he said. ‘One rock could close a road.'”

The best report I’ve seen about what geologists knew, and expected, is The Independent‘s After the Mudslides, What Does the Next Rain Hold for Montecito?, published four days after the disaster. In that report, Kevin Cooper of the U.S. Forest Service said, “no one alive has probably ever seen one before.” [January 18 update: Nick Welch in The Independent reports, “Last week’s debris flow was hardly Santa Barbara’s first. Jim Stubchaer, then an engineer with County Flood Control, remembers the avalanche of mud that took 250 homes back in November 1964 when heavy rains followed quickly on the heels of the Coyote Fire. He was there in 1969 and 1971 when it happened again.” Here is a long 2009 report on the Coyote Fire in The Independent by Ray Ford, now with Noozhawk. No mention of the homes lost in there. Perhaps Ray can weigh in.]

My point is that debris flows over Montecito ae a sure bet in geologic time, but not in the human one. In the whole history of Montecito and Santa Barbara (of which Montecito is an unincorporated part), there are no recorded debris flows that started on mountain slopes and spread all the way to the sea. But on January 9th we had several debris flows on that scale, originating simultaneously in the canyons feeding Montecito, San Ysidro and Romero Creeks. Those creeks are dry most of the time, and beautiful areas in which to build homes: so beautiful, in fact, that Montecito is the other Beverly Hills. (That’s why all these famous people have called it home.)

One well-studied prehistoric debris flow in Santa Barbara emptied a natural lake that is now Skofield Park,dumping long-gone mud and lots of rocks in Rattlesnake Canyon, leaving its clearest evidence in a charming tree-shaded boulder field next to Mission Creek called Rocky Nook Park.

What geologists at UCSB learned from that flow is detailed in a 2001 report titled UCSB Scientists Study Ancient Debris Flows. It begins, “The next ‘big one’ in Santa Barbara may not be an earthquake but a boulder-carrying flood.” It also says that flood would “most likely occur every few thousand years.”

And we got one in Montecito last Tuesday.

I’ve read somewhere that studies of charcoal from campfires buried in Rocky Nook Park date that debris flow at around 500 years ago. This is a good example of how the geologic present fails to include present human memory. Still, you can get an idea of how big this flow was. Stand in Rattlesnake Canyon downstream from Skofield Park and look at the steep rocky slopes below houses on the south side of the canyon. It isn’t hard to imagine the violence that tore out the smooth hillside that had been there before.

To help a bit more with that exercise, here is a Google Streetview of Scofield Park, looking down at Santa Barbara through Rattlesnake Canyon:

I added the red line to show the approximate height of the natural dam that broke and released that debris flow.

I’ve also learned that the loaf-shaped Riviera landform in Santa Barbara is not a hunk of solid rock, but rather what remains of a giant landslide that slid off the south face of the Santa Ynez Mountains and became free-standing after creeks eroded out the valley behind. I’ve also read that Mission Creek flows westward around the Riviera and behind the Mission because the Riviera itself is also sliding the same direction on its own tectonic sled.

We only see these sleds moving, however, when geologic and human time converge. That happened last Tuesday when rains Kevin Cooper calls “biblical” hit in the darkest hours, saturating the mountain face creek beds that were burned by the Thomas Fire just last month. As a result, debris flows gooped down the canyons and stream valleys below, across Montecito to the sea, depositing lots of geology on top of what was already there.

So in retrospect, those slopes in various colors in the top map above should have been dark red instead. But, to be fair, much of what geology knows is learned the hard way.

Our home, one zip code west of Montecito, is fine. But we can’t count how many people we know who are affected directly. One friend barely escaped. Some victims were friends of friends. Some of the stories are beyond awful.

We all process tragedies like this in the ways we know best, and mine is by reporting on stuff, hopefully in ways others are not, or at least not yet. So I’ll start with this map showing damaged and destroyed buildings along the creeks:

At this writing the map is 70% complete. [January 17 update: 95%.] I’ve clicked on all the red dots (which mark destroyed buildings, most of which are homes), and I’ve copied and pasted the addresses that pop up into the following outline, adding a few links.

Going downstream along Cold Spring Creek, Hot Springs Creek and Montecito Creek (which the others feed), gone are—
  1. 817 Ashley Road
  2. 817 Ashley Road (out building)
  3. 797 Ashley Road
  4. 780 Ashley Road. Amazing architectural treasure that last sold for $12.9 million in ’13.
  5. 809 Ashley Road
  6. 809 Ashley Road (there are two at one address)
  7. 747 Indian Lane
  8. 631 Parra Grande Lane. That’s the mansion where the final scene in Scarface was shot.
  9. 590 Meadowood Lane
  10. 830 Rockbridge Road
  11. 800 Rockbridge Road
  12. 790 Rockbridge Road
  13. 787 Riven Rock Road B
  14. 1261 East Valley Road
  15. 1240 East Valley Road A (mansion)
  16. 1240 East Valley Road B (out building)
  17. 1254 East Valley Drive
  18. 1255 East Valley Road
  19. 1247 East Valley Road A
  20. 1247 East Valley Road B (attached)
  21. 1231 East Valley Road A
  22. 1231 East Valley Road B (detached)
  23. 1231 East Valley Road C (detached)
  24. 1221 East Valley Road A
  25. 1221 East Valley Road B
  26. 369 Hot Springs Road
  27. 341 Hot Springs Road A
  28. 341 Hot Springs Road B
  29. 341 Hot Springs Road C
  30. 355 Hot Springs Road
  31. 335 Hot Springs Road A
  32. 335 Hot Springs Road B
  33. 333 Hot Springs Road (Not marked in final map)
  34. 341 Hot Springs Road A
  35. 341 Hot Springs Road B
  36. 341 Hot Springs Road C
  37. 340 Hot Springs Road
  38. 319 Hot Springs Road
  39. 325 Olive Mill Road
  40. 285 Olive Mill Road
  41. 275 Olive Mill Road
  42. 325 Olive Mill Road
  43. 220 Olive Mill Road
  44. 200 Olive Mill Road
  45. 275 Olive Mill Road
  46. 180 Olive Mill Road
  47. 170 Olive Mill Road
  48. 144 Olive Mill Road
  49. 137 Olive Mill Road
  50. 139 Olive Mill Road
  51. 127 Olive Mill Road
  52. 196 Santa Elena Lane
  53. 192 Santa Elena Lane
  54. 179 Santa Isabel Lane
  55. 175 Santa Elena Lane
  56. 142 Santo Tomas Lane
  57. 82 Olive Mill Road
  58. 1308 Danielson Road
  59. 81 Depot Road
  60. 75 Depot Road
Along Oak Creek—
  1. 601 San Ysidro Road
  2. 560 San Ysidro Road B
Along San Ysidro Creek—
  1. 953 West Park Lane
  2. 941 West Park Lane
  3. 931 West park Lane
  4. 925 West park Lane
  5. 903 West park Lane
  6. 893 West park Lane
  7. 805 W Park Lane
  8. 881 West park Lane
  9. 881 West park Lane (separate building, same address)
  10. 1689 Mountain Drive
  11. 900 San Ysidro Lane C (all the Lane addresses appear to be in San Ysidro Ranch)
  12. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage B
  13. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage A
  14. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage D
  15. 900 San Ysidro Lane E
  16. 900 San Ysidro Lane F
  17. 900 San Ysidro Lane G
  18. 900 San Ysidro Lane H
  19. 900 San Ysidro Lane I
  20. 900 San Ysidro Lane J
  21. 900 San Ysidro Lane K
  22. 900 San Ysidro Lane L
  23. 900 San Ysidro Lane M
  24. 900 San Ysidro Lane N
  25. 900 San Ysidro Lane O
  26. 900 San Ysidro Lane R
  27. 900 San Ysidro Lane S
  28. 900 San Ysidro Lane T
  29. 888 San Ysidro Lane A
  30. 888 San Ysidro Lane B
  31. 888 San Ysidro Lane C
  32. 888 San Ysidro Lane D
  33. 888 San Ysidro Lane E
  34. 888 San Ysidro Lane F
  35. 805 West Park Lane B
  36. 799 East Mountain Drive
  37. 1801 East Mountain Lane
  38. 1807 East Mountain Drive
  39. 771 Via Manana Road
  40. 899 El Bosque Road
  41. 771 Via Manana Road
  42. 898 El Bosque Road
  43. 800 El Bosque Road A (Casa de Maria)
  44. 800 El Bosque Road B (Casa de Maria)
  45. 800 El Bosque Road C (Casa de Maria)
  46. 559 El Bosque Road (This is between Oak Creek and San Ysidro Creek)
  47. 680 Randall Road
  48. 670 Randall Road
  49. 660 Randall Road
  50. 650 Randall Road
  51. 640 Randall Road
  52. 630 Randall Road
  53. 619 Randall Road
  54. 1685 East Valley Road A
  55. 1685 East Valley Road B
  56. 1685 East Valley Road C
  57. 1696 East Valley Road
  58. 1760 Valley Road A
  59. 1725 Valley Road A
  60. 1705 Glenn Oaks Drive A
  61. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive B
  62. 1710 Glen Oaks Drive A
  63. 1790 Glen Oaks Drive A
  64. 1701 Glen Oaks Drive A
  65. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive A
  66. 1705 East Valley Road A
  67. 1705 East Valley Road B
  68. 1705 East Valley Road C
  69. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive N/A
  70. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive (one on top of the other)
  71. 1774 Glen Oaks Drive
  72. 1707 East Valley Road A
  73. 1685 East Valley Road C
  74. 1709 East Valley Road
  75. 1709 East Valley Road B
  76. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive A
  77. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive B
  78. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive A
  79. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive B
  80. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive C
  81. 1781 Glen Oaks Drive A
  82. 1711 East Valley Road (This and what follow are adjacent to Oprah)
  83. 1715 East Valley Road A
  84. 1715 East Valley Road B
  85. 1719 East Valley Road
  86. 1721 East Valley Road A (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  87. 1721 East Valley Road B (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  88. 1721 East Valley Road C (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  89. 1694 San Leandro Lane A
  90. 1694 San Leandro Lane D
  91. 1690 San Leandro Lane C
  92. 1690 San Leandro Lane A
  93. 1694 San Leandro Lane B
  94. 1696 San Leandro Lane
  95. 1710 San Leandro Lane A
  96. 1710 San Leandro Lane B
  97. 190 Tiburon Bay Lane
  98. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane A
  99. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane B
  100. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane C
  101. 197 Tiburon Bay Lane A
Along Buena Vista Creek—
  1. 923 Buena Vista Avenue
  2. 1984 Tollis Avenue A
  3. 1984 Tollis Avenue B
  4. 1984 Tollis Avenue C
  5. 670 Lilac Drive
  6. 658 Lilac Drive
  7. 2075 Alisos Drive (marked earlier, but I don’t see it in the final map)
  8. 627 Oak Grove Lane
Along Romero Creek—
  1. 1000 Romero Canyon Road
  2. 1050 Romero Canyon Road
  3. 860 Romero Canyon Road
  4. 768 Winding Creek Lane
  5. 745 Winding Creek Lane
  6. 744 Winding Creek Lane
  7. 2281 Featherhill Avenue B

Below Toro Canyon—

  1. 876 Toro Canyon Road
  2. 572 Toro Canyon Park Road

Along Arroyo Paredon, between Summerland and Carpinteria, not far east of the Toro Canyon—

  1. 2000 Cravens Lane

Ten flanking Highway 101 by the ocean are marked as damaged, including four on Padero Lane.

When I add those up, I get 142 163* 178† among the destroyed alone.

[* This is on January 17, when the map says it is 95% complete. All the additions appear to be along San Ysidro Creek, especially on San Ysidro Lane, which I believe is mostly in San Ysidro Ranch. Apparently nearly the whole place has been destroyed. Adjectives such as “lovely” fail to describe what it was.]

[† This is on January 18, when the map is complete. I’ll need to go over it again, because there are subtractions as well as additions. Additional note: on March 22, the resident at 809 Ashley Road asked me to make sure that address was also added. There are two homes at that address, both gone.]

Now let’s go back and look more closely at this again from the geological perspective.

What we see is a town revised by nature in full disregard for what was there before—and in full obedience to the pattern of alluvial deposition on the flanks of all fresh mountains that erode down almost as fast as they go up.

This same pattern accounts for much of California, including all of the South Coast and the Los Angeles basin.

To see what I mean, hover your mind above Atlanta and look north at the southern Appalachians. Then dial history back five million years. What you see won’t look much different. Do the same above Los Angeles or San Francisco and nothing will be the same, or even close. Or even there at all.

Five million years is about 1/1000th of Earth’s history. If that history were compressed to a day, California showed up in less than the last forty seconds. In that short time California has formed and re-formed constantly, and is among the most provisional landscapes in the world. All of it is coming up, sliding down, spreading out and rearranging itself, and will continue doing so through all the future that’s worth bothering to foresee. Debris flows are among nature’s most casual methods for revising landscapes. (By the way, I am writing this in a San Marino house that sits atop the Raymond Fault scarp, which on the surface takes the form of a forty-foot hill. The stack of rock strata under the bottom of that hill is displaced 17,000 feet from the identical suite under the base at the top. Many earthquakes produced that displacement, while erosion has buffed 16,960 feet of rock and soil off the top.)

So we might start to look at the Santa Ynez Mountains behind Santa Barbara and Montecito not as a stable land form but rather as a volcano of mud and rock that’s sure to go off every few dozen or hundreds of years—and will possibly deliver a repeat performance if we get more heavy rains and there is plenty of debris left to flow out of mountain areas adjacent to those that flowed on January 9th. If there’s a lot of it, why even bother saving Montecito?

Here’s why:

One enters the Engineering building at the University of Wyoming under that stone plaque, which celebrates what may be our species’ greatest achievement and conceit: controlling nature. (It’s also why geology is starting to call our present epoch the anthropocene.)

This also forecasts exactly what we will do for Montecito. In the long run we’ll lose to nature. But meanwhile we strive on.

In our new strivings, it will help to look toward other places in California that are more experienced with debris flows, because they happen almost constantly there. The largest of these by far is Los Angeles, which has placed catch basins at the mouths of all the large canyons coming out of the San Gabriel Mountains. Most of these dwarf the ones above Montecito. All resemble empty reservoirs. Some are actually quarries for rocks and gravel that roll in constantly from the eroding creek beds above. None are pretty.

To understand the challenge involved, it helps to read John McPhee’s classic book The Control of Nature, which takes its title from the inscription above. Fortunately, you can start right now by reading the first essay in a pair that became the relevant chapter of that book. It’s free on the Web and called Los Angeles Against the Mountains I. Here’s an excerpt:

Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins.

The Genofiles were a family that barely survived a debris flow on a slope of Verdugo Mountain, overlooking Los Angeles from Glendale. Here’s another story, about another site not far away:

The snout of the debris flow was twenty feet high, tapering behind. Debris flows sometimes ooze along, and sometimes move as fast as the fastest river rapids. The huge dark snout was moving nearly five hundred feet a minute and the rest of the flow behind was coming twice as fast, making roll waves as it piled forward against itself—this great slug, as geologists would describe it, this discrete slug, this heaving violence of wet cement. Already included in the debris were propane tanks, outbuildings, picnic tables, canyon live oaks, alders, sycamores, cottonwoods, a Lincoln Continental, an Oldsmobile, and countless boulders five feet thick. All this was spread wide a couple of hundred feet, and as the debris flow went through Hidden Springs it tore out more trees, picked up house trailers and more cars and more boulders, and knocked Gabe Hinterberg’s lodge completely off its foundation. Mary and Cal Drake were standing in their living room when a wall came off. “We got outside somehow,” he said later. “I just got away. She was trying to follow me. Evidently, her feet slipped out from under her. She slid right down into the main channel.” The family next door were picked up and pushed against their own ceiling. Two were carried away. Whole houses were torn loose with people inside them. A house was ripped in half. A bridge was obliterated. A large part of town was carried a mile downstream and buried in the reservoir behind Big Tujunga Dam. Thirteen people were part of the debris. Most of the bodies were never found.

This is close to exactly what happened to Montecito in the wee hours of January 9th. (As of March 22, two of the 23 dead still haven’t been recovered, and probably never will be.)

As of now the 8000-plus residents of Montecito are evacuated and forbidden to return for at least another two weeks—and maybe much longer if officials declare the hills above town ready to flow again.

Highway 101—one of just two major freeways between Southern and Northern California, is closed indefinitely, because it is now itself a stream bed, and re-landscaping the area around it, to get water going where it should, will take some time. So will fixing the road, and perhaps bridges as well.

Meanwhile getting in and out of Santa Barbara from east of Montecito by car requires a detour akin to driving from Manhattan to Queens by way of Vermont. And there have already been accidents, I’ve heard, on highway 166, which is the main detour road. We’ll be taking that detour or one like it on Thursday when we head home via Los Angeles after we fly there from New York, where I’m packing up now.

Expect this post to grow and change.

Bonus links:

 

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Here’s the latest satellite fire detection data, restricted to just the last twelve hours of the Thomas Fire, mapped on Google Earth Pro:That’s labeled 1830 Mountain Standard Time (MST), or 5:30pm Pacific, about half an hour ago as I write this.

And here are the evacuation areas:

Our home is in the orange Voluntary Evacuation area. So we made a round trip from LA to prepare the house as best we could, gather some stuff and go. Here’s a photo album of the trip, and one of the last sights we saw on our way out of town:

This, I believe, was a fire break created on the up-slope side of Toro Canyon. Whether purely preventive or not, it was very impressive.

And here is a view of the whole burn area, which stretches more than forty miles from west to east (or from Montecito to Fillmore):

Here you can see how there is no fresh fire activity near Lake Casitas and Carpinteria, which is cool (at least relatively). You can also see how Ojai and Carpinteria were saved, how Santa Barbara is threatened, and how there are at least five separate fires around the perimeter. Three of those are in the back country, and I suspect the idea is to let those burn until they hit natural fire breaks or the wind shifts and the fires get blown back on their own burned areas and fizzle out there.

The main area of concern is at the west end of the fire, above Santa Barbara, in what they call the front country: the slope on the ocean’s side of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which run as a long and steep spine, rising close to 4000 feet high in the area we care about here. (It’s higher farther west.)

This afternoon I caught a community meeting on KEYT, Santa Barbara’s TV station, which has been very aggressive and responsible in reporting on the fire. I can’t find a recording of that meeting now on the station’s website, but I am watching the station’s live 6pm news broadcast now, devoted to a news conference at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. (Even though I’m currently at a house near Los Angeles, I can watch our TV set top box remotely through a system called Dish Anywhere. Hats off to Dish Network for providing that ability. In addition to being cool, it’s exceptionally handy for evacuated residents whose homes still have electricity and a good Internet connection. I thank Southern California Edison and Cox for those.)

On KEYT, Mark Brown of @Cal_Fire just spoke about Plans A, B and C, one or more of which will be chosen based on how the weather moves. Plan C is the scariest (and he called it that), because it involves setting fire lines close to homes, intentionally scorching several thousand acres to create an already-burned break, to stop the fire. “The vegetation will be removed before the fire has a chance to take it out, the way it wants to take it out,” he says.

Okay, that briefing just ended. I’ll leave it there.

So everybody reading this knows, we are fine, and don’t need to be at the house while this is going on. We also have great faith that 8000 fire fighting personnel and all their support systems will do the job and save our South Coast communities. What they’ve done so far has been nothing short of amazing, given the enormous geographical extent of this fire, the exceptionally rugged nature of the terrain, the record dryness of the vegetation, and other disadvantages. A huge hat tip to them.

 

 

[Update: 7:22am Monday December 11] Two views of ThomasFire developments. First, MODIS fire detections, plotted on Google Earth Pro, current at 7am Pacific time:

Second, a screenshot of the NCWG (National Wildfire Coordinating Group) map of the area, 7:18am Pacific time:

On the map itself, you can click on each of those squares and get more specific data. Here is the latest from VIIRS, which appears to be the source of the five hot spots in Montecito, above:

This explains now MODIS and VIIRS work together.

In listening to what local media I can (over the Net, from where I am in Los Angeles), I’ve heard nothing about the five hot spots detected in Montecito. KCLU reports that winds are slack, and smoke moving straight up, which means that firefighters may be able to restrict growth of the fire to the back country behind the spine of Santa Ynez mountains, behind Santa Barbara and Montecito.

[December 10, 3:45pm] MODIS fire data, plotted on Google Earth. The view is straight east. You can see the Thomas Fire advancing through the back country westward toward Santa Barbara, and already encroaching on Carpinteria:

Those are fire detections. Radiative power data is also at that first link.

Here is a collection of links to sources of useful information aboiut the #ThomasFire:

 

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That was yesterday. Hard to tell from just looking at it, but that’s a 180° shot, panning from east to west across California’s South Coast, most of which is masked by smoke from the Thomas Fire.

We weren’t in the smoke then, but we are now, so there’s not much to shoot. Just something more to wear: a dust mask. Yesterday I picked up two of the few left at the nearest hardware store, and now I’m wearing one around the house. Since wildfire smoke is bad news for lungs, that seems like a good idea.

I’m also noticing dead air coming from radio stations whose transmitters have likely burned up. And websites that seem dead to the fire as well. Here’s a list of signals that I’m pretty sure is off the air right now. All their transmitters are within the Thomas Fire perimeter:

Some are on Red Mountain (on the west of Highway 33, which connects Ventura with Ojai); some are in the Ventura Hills; and some are on Sulphur Mountain, which is the high ridge on the south side of Ojai. One is on Santa Paula Mountain, with a backup on Red Mountain. (That’s KOCP. I don’t hear it, and normally do.)

In some cases I’m hearing a live signal but dead air. In others I’m hearing nothing at all. In still other cases I’m hearing something faint. And some signals are too small, directional or isolated for me to check from 30 miles (give or take) away. So, fact checking is welcome. There’s a chance some of these are on the air with lower power at temporary locations.

The links in the list above go to technical information for each station, including exact transmitter locations and facilities, rather than to the stations themselves. Here’s a short cut to those, from the great Radio-Locator.com.

Nearly all the Ventura area FM stations — KHAY, KRUZ, KFYV, KMLA, KCAQ , KMRO, KSSC and KOCP — have nothing about the fire on their websites. Kinda sad, that. I’ve only found only two local stations doing what they should be doing at times like this. One is KCLU/88.3, the public station in Thousand Oaks. KCLU also serves the South Coast with an AM and an FM signal in Santa Barbara. The other is KVTA/1590. The latter is almost inaudible here right now. I suppose that’s because of a power outage. Its transmitter, like those of the other two AM stations in town, is down in a flat area unlikely to burn.

KBBY, on Rincon Mountain (a bit west of Red Mountain, but in an evacuation area with reported spot fires), is still on the air. Its website also has no mention of the fire. Same with KHAY/100.7, on Red Mountain, which was off the air but is now back on. Likewise KMLA/103.7, licensed to El Rio but serving the Ventura area.

KXLM/102.9 which transmits from the flats, is on the air.

Other sources of fire coverage are KPCC, KCRW and KNX.

 

 

 

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Here’s what I wrote about pirate radio in New York, back in 2013 . I hoped to bait major media attention with that. Got zip.

Then I wrote this in 2015 (when I also took the screen shot, above, of a local pirate’s ID on my kitchen radio). I got a couple people interested, including one college student, but we couldn’t coordinate our schedules and the moments were lost.

Now comes news of pirate radio crackdowns by the FCC*, yet little of that news concerns the demand these stations supply. The default story is about FCC vs. Pirates, not how pirates address the inadequacies of FCC-licensed broadcast radio. (One good exception: this story in the Miami Herald about an FCC-fined pirate that programs for a population licensed radio doesn’t serve.)

To sample the situation, drive your car up Broadway north of 181st Street in Manhattan (above which the city gets very hilly, and there is maximal signal shadowing by big apartment buildings), or into the middle of the Bronx (same kind of setting), on any weekend evening. Then hit SCAN on your radio. Betcha a third of the stations you’ll hear are pirates, and the announcers will be speaking Spanish or Caribbean English. Some stations will have ads. Even if you only hear three or four signals (I’m on the wrong coast for checking on this), you’re tapping into something real happening which—far as I know—continues to attract approximately zero interest among popular media. (Could be it’s a thing on Twitter, but I don’t know.)

But there is a story here, about a marketplace of the literal sort. As I say in both those posts (at the top two links above), I wish I knew Spanish. For a reporter who does, there’s some great meat to chew on here. And it’s not just about the FCC playing a game of whack-a-mole. It’s about what licensed broadcasting alone can’t or won’t do.

Low power FM transmitters are cheap, by the way. The good ones are in low four figures. (One example.) The okay ones are in the two- and three-figure range. (Examples on Amazon and eBay.)

By the way, anything more than a small fraction of one watt is almost certainly in violation of Part 15 of the FCC rules, and therefore illegal. But hey, there’s a market for these things, so they sell.

By the way, is anyone visiting the topic of what will happen if Cumulus and/or iHeart can’t pay their debts? If either or both go down, a huge percentage of over-the-air radio in the U.S. goes with them.

The easy thing to blame is bad corporate decisions of one kind or another. The harder one is considering what the digital world is doing to undermine and replace the analog one.

If you’re wondering about why pirate radio is so big in New York yet relatively nowhere in Los Angeles (the next-largest broadcast market), here’s the main reason: New York FM stations are weak. None are more than 6000 watts, and those are on the Empire State Building, only about 1300 feet up in the air above the center of a metro that’s thick with signal shadowing by buildings that bang up FM signals. In nearby New Jersey and the outer boroughs, you can put out a 10 or a 50 watt signal from a whip antenna on top of a house or a high-rise, on a channel right next to a licensed one, and cover a zip code or two with little trouble. It’s hard to do that in most of Los Angeles, where stations radiate from 6000-foot Mt. Wilson, at powers up to 110000 watts, and strong signals pack the dial from one end to the other. There are similar situations in Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Denver and San Francisco (though a few more terrain shadows to operate in). In flat places without thick clusters of high-rises in their outlying areas—Miami, New Orleans, Memphis, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit—there are few places for pirates to hide among the buildings. In those places it’s relatively easy to locate and smack down a pirate, especially if they’re operating in a wide open way (as was the Miami example).

A giant yacht was anchored just outside the harbor in Santa Barbara for much of this past week:

Among its impressive features (though not especially visible in this, my shitty photo) is the helicopter on one of the aft decks.

I wanted to know exactly what this thing was, so I watched local media for clues, which did not forthcome.

But it didn’t matter, because we have the Web. And search engines. So I did an image search for super yacht helicopter pad and found an exact image match with this Robb Report on the Pegasus VIII, which is a charter vessel for hire at many links. Says this one,

The 255.91ft /78m Custom motor yacht ‘Pegasus VIII’ was built in 2003 by Royal Denship and last refitted in 2011. This luxury vessel’s sophisticated exterior design and engineering are the work of Espen Oeino. Previously named Pegasus V her luxurious interior is designed by Zuretti and her exterior styling is by Espen Oeino.

ACCOMMODATION

Pegasus VIII’s interior layout sleeps up to 12 guests in 6 rooms, including a master suite, 2 VIP staterooms, 2 double cabins and 1 twin cabin. She is also capable of carrying up to 24 crew onboard to ensure a relaxed luxury yacht experience. Timeless styling, beautiful furnishings and sumptuous seating feature throughout to create an elegant and comfortable atmosphere.

Pegasus VIII’s impressive leisure and entertainment facilities make her the ideal charter yacht for socialising and entertaining with family and friends.

PERFORMANCE

She is built with Steel hull and Aluminium / GRP superstructure. This custom displacement w/ bulbous bow yacht is equipped with an ultra-modern stabilization system which reduces roll motion effect and results in a smoother more enjoyable cruising experience. She features ‘at anchor stabilisers’ which work at zero speed to increase onboard comfort at anchor and on rough waters. With a cruising speed of 13 knots, a maximum speed of 145 knots† and a range of 7,000nm from her 435,700litre fuel tanks, she is the perfect combination of performance and luxury.

INTERIOR DESIGN

The Party deck features a Salon with a raised dancing area and a Jacuzzi on the exterior deck.

AMENITIES

At anchor Stabilizers , Gym, Jacuzzi (on deck), Helicopter Landing Pad, Swimming Pool, Movie Theatre, Beach Club, Childrens Playroom, Dance Floor, Swimming Platform, Air Conditioning, Dip Pool, Underwater Lights, Massage Room, Piano, Air Conditioning, Stabilizers at Anchor, WiFi connection on board, Deck Jacuzzi, Gym/exercise equipment

SPECIAL FEATURES

Drydock for custom tender which can be flooded when tender is out to form a 12m swimming pool with underwater lighting and steps.

Nice to know a little of what’s up for the .0001% of us.

† I believe there is a missing decimal here. The world’s fastest yacht clocks in at 70 knots.

pop

Thinking today, with great appreciation, about my father, Allen H. Searls, who served twice in the U.S. Army, first in the Coastal Artillery and again in the Signal Corps, during World War II.

As I put it in the caption under that photo,

Pop hated not fighting in The War. So he re-enlisted even though he had already served in the Coastal Artillery. Grandma wrote on the back of this picture… “Pvt Allen H. Searls, 42103538, Camp Croft, S.C., Spartanburg, March 1, 1944.” He was promoted to corporal thanks to having served once already, and assigned to the Signal Corps in part because he scored 159 on the Army’s IQ test. He never bragged on that, by the way. (Though I will.) It was also very hard to get it out of him. Not that we needed to. We all knew how smart he was.

Among other things he—

  • Arrived in the second wave at Normandy.
  • Lost some of his hearing from laying communications wiring forward of cannons, as his unit advanced.
  • Was involved in liberating at least one concentration camp.
  • Served as one of Eisenhower’s phone operators after the war ended.

Like most veterans who were involved in combat and other unpleasantries, he didn’t like talking about that. Instead he talked about his buddies and interesting technical details about how things worked, places he enjoyed seeing.

Maybe my sister (another veteran, in this case of the U.S. Navy) can weigh in with some other details.

Main thing is honoring Pop. He was a great patriot and a great dad.

docdaveMy given name is David. Family members still call me that. Everybody else calls me Doc. Since people often ask me where that nickname came from, and since apparently I haven’t answered it anywhere I can now find online, here’s the story.

Thousands of years ago, in the mid-1970s, I worked at a little radio station owned by Duke University called WDBS. (A nice history of the station survives, in instant-loading 1st generation html, here. I also give big hat tip to Bob Chapman for talking Duke into buying the station in 1971, when he was still a student there.)

As signals went, WDBS was a shrub in grove of redwoods: strong in Duke’s corner of Durham, a bit weak in Chapel Hill, and barely audible in Raleigh—the three corners of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. (One of those redwoods, WRAL, was audible, their slogan bragged, “from Hatteras to Hickory,” which is about 320 miles as the crow flies.)

As a commercial station, WDBS had to sell advertising. This proved so difficult that we made up ads for stuff that didn’t exist. That, in addition to selling ads, was my job. The announcer’s name I used for many of the ads, plus other humorous features, was Doctor Dave. It wasn’t a name I chose. Bob Conroy did that. I also had a humorous column under the same name for the station’s monthly arts guide, with the image above at the top of the page. That one was created by Ray Simone.

Ray and David Hodskins, another WDBS listener, later approached me with the idea of starting an ad agency, which we did: Hodskins Simone & Searls. Since we already had a David, everybody at the agency called me Doctor Dave, which quickly abbreviated to Doc. Since my social network in business far exceeded all my other ones, the name stuck. And there you have it.

 

highmountainI’ve long thought that the most consequential thing I’ve ever done was write a newspaper editorial that helped stop development atop the highest wooded hilltop overlooking the New York metro. The hill is called High Mountain, and it is now home to the High Mountain Park Preserve in Wayne, New Jersey. That’s it above, highlighted by a rectangle on a shot I took from a passenger plane on approach to LaGuardia in 2008.

The year was 1970, and I was a 23-year-old reporter for a suburban daily called Wayne Today (which may still exist). One day, while at the police station picking up copies of the previous day’s reports, I found a detailed plan to develop the top of High Mountain, and decided to pay the place a visit. So I took a fun hike through thick woods and a din of screaming cicadas (Brood X, I gather—the same one that inspired Bob Dylan’s “Day of the Locust”) to a rocky clearing at the crest, and immediately decided the mountain was a much better place for a park than for the office building specified in the plan.

As it happened there was also a need for an editorial soon after that, and Jerry Fuchs, who usually wrote our editorials, wasn’t available. So I came off the bench and wrote this:

wayne-today-editorial

That was a draft proof of the piece.* I ran across it today while cleaning old papers from a file cabinet in my garage. I doubt anybody has the final printed piece, and I’m amazed that the proof exists.

I left for another paper after that, and didn’t keep up with Wayne news, beyond hearing that my editorial derailed the development plan. No doubt activists of various kinds were behind the eventual preservation of the mountain. But it’s nice to know there is some small proof I had something to do with that.

*Additional history: Wayne Today published in those days using old-fashioned letterpress techniques. Type was set in lead by skilled operators on Linotype machines. Each line was a “slug,” and every written piece was a pile of slugs arranged in a frame, inked with a roller and then proofed by another roller that printed on blank paper. That’s what we marked up (as you see above) for the Linotype operators, who would create replacement slugs, give them to the page composers in layout, who could read upside down and backwards as they arranged everything in what was called a forme. The layout guys (they were all guys) then embossed each page into a damp papier-mâché sheet, which would serve as a mold for a half-cylinder of hot lead. Half-cylinders wrapped around giant rollers inked each rotation by other rollers did the printing. Other machines after that cut, stacked and folded the pages that ended up as newspapers at the end of the line. So the whole process went like this: reporter->Linotype operator->editor->Linotype operator->page composer->stereotype operator->printer. Ancestors of robotics eventually replaced all of it not long after I left (and the press burned down). Now in the U.S. exemplars of big-J journalism (New York Times, Washington Post) are tarred by the President as “fake news,” and millions believe him. My, how times change.

More High Mountain links:

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