Making sense of what happened to Montecito

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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61 comments

  1. Tom La Rovere’s avatar

    And they were also handing out sandbags at Manning Park to folks like my friend on EVR. The fireman handing them out who said he lives in the voluntary zone stated he was leaving with his family.

    And, another question: why is the fire department spending resources and skilled personnel handing out sandbags?

    Seems to me the BOS needs to get someone from HBS, and expert manager to come and straighten out county management.

  2. Robert hazard’s avatar

    Th role of County Fire in this tragedy is little understood. Basically they were excluded from the preparation for winter flooding which was managed by the Office of Emergency Management, County Flood Control (Public Works Dept.) and the Sheriff. In my opinion had the Fire Department been in charge of preparations mandatory evacuations would have been based on flooding potential as depicted on numerous maps readily available. And perhaps 23 people would be alive today.

  3. Tom La Rovere’s avatar

    I agree the Fire Department seems to be the most qualified, based on their demonstrated and typical roles in prevention (looking forward to identify and remedy risks) as well as mobilizing and fighting.

    However, drawing up and having the ultimate decision as to the evacuation zones for situations other than fires and communicating such to the public seems like what OEM should do. In fact, they sort of do that, but not very well. That was and is the problem.

    I am also hearing that the predicted flow path map, evidently made public on Jan 5 (I did not see it until a week later as published by the SB Indy), was evidently covered over by the broad brush of red and yellow when the SBC map was published on Jan 8. Had my now dead friends seen that flow map, or been advised to evacuate, they would have. Their car was packed and they were ready.

  4. Matt Tritt’s avatar

    I lived in Montecito from ‘61 through ‘78 and experienced the whole range of fires and following floods, both on Sycamore Canyon and then on Parra Grande. Even in “normal” rain years, the cavalcade of rocks and boulders rolling down Montecito Creek was enough to make me question the advisability of living in the area. After the Coyote fire, the big rains dislodged some extremely large boulders, one of which ended up sitting directly on the foundation of a garage on E. Mtn. Drive that was at least 25’ in diameter. It bowled over an unknown number of Oaks on it’s trip down the mountain, and the only thing that stopped it was that opportune flat spot. My feeling at the time was that human beings tend to be extremely myopic concerning where they choose to live and how they choose to build. The big draws in Montecito are, of course, the trees and the view. You get the (mistaken) impression that the forest has been there for aeons and that it is therefor safe and secure to live in it’s midst but, like the whole idea of living on a virtual precipice, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. It will take many years for the decimated plant communities to reestablish themselves on the steep face of the mountains, and because of this, Montecito will remain vulnerable to more – and potentially worse – similar events until some mitigation evolves in the form of new root systems. And then there’s the fire problem.

  5. LEE CECIL’s avatar

    It is regrettable that we are led to worry about climate change, but present and immediate data of threats are ignored.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Lee, climate change and immediate dangers are for the most part two different subjects, and many people ignore one, the other, or both.

    It will take a while to fully process what happened to Montecito, including the plain fact that debris flows will happen again. So also will fires, earthquakes and tsunamis. To live where we do requires equally high degrees of appreciation and vigilance.

  7. Robert hazard’s avatar

    An interesting story on NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/montecito-mudslide-residents-pick-be-victim-or-survivor-county-official-n840076. Lewin, head of County Emergency Management, makes this ridiculous statement during the press conference linked in the article, “Lewin then mentioned that he had talked to a friend who had survived a wildfire. “And she imparted to me that we get to choose whether we want to be a victim or a survivor,” Lewin said, apparently speaking to the mindset disaster victims adopt.”
    I have to say that this guy is seriously lacking in smarts. As someone once said, “”Let me tell you about the law of holes: If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” I suspect that Lewin would be out of a job except for the fact that to fire him would be an admission of the County’s culpability in the loss of life. And that could bite the County very hard in the coming lawsuits.

  8. Linda Saccoccio’s avatar

    Thanks Doc. This was worth the read, interesting, informative and well written.
    Your neighbor on the CA Riviera, and former Waldorf parent,
    Linda
    Hello to Joyce! If you are around let us know, maybe we can catch dinner.

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