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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. 747 Indian Lane
  6. 631 Parra Grande Lane. That’s the mansion where the final scene in Scarface was shot.
  7. 590 Meadowood Lane
  8. 830 Rockbridge Road
  9. 800 Rockbridge Road
  10. 790 Rockbridge Road
  11. 787 Riven Rock Road B
  12. 1261 East Valley Road
  13. 1240 East Valley Road A (mansion)
  14. 1240 East Valley Road B (out building)
  15. 1254 East Valley Drive
  16. 1255 East Valley Road
  17. 1247 East Valley Road A
  18. 1247 East Valley Road B (attached)
  19. 1231 East Valley Road A
  20. 1231 East Valley Road B (detached)
  21. 1231 East Valley Road C (detached)
  22. 1221 East Valley Road A
  23. 1221 East Valley Road B
  24. 369 Hot Springs Road
  25. 341 Hot Springs Road
  26. 355 Hot Springs Road
  27. 340 Hot Springs Road
  28. 319 Hot Springs Road
  29. 325 Olive Mill Road
  30. 285 Olive Mill Road
  31. 275 Olive Mill Road
  32. 325 Olive Mill Road
  33. 220 Olive Mill Road
  34. 200 Olive Mill Road
  35. 275 Olive Mill Road
  36. 180 Olive Mill Road
  37. 170 Olive Mill Road
  38. 144 Olive Mill Road
  39. 137 Olive Mill Road
  40. 139 Olive Mill Road
  41. 127 Olive Mill Road
  42. 196 Santa Elena Lane
  43. 192 Santa Elena Lane
  44. 179 Santa Isabel Lane
  45. 175 Santa Elena Lane
  46. 142 Santo Tomas Lane
  47. 82 Olive Mill Road
  48. 1308 Danielson Road
  49. 81 Depot Road
  50. 75 Depot Road
Along Oak Creek, some are damaged, but none destroyed.
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. 680 Randall Road
  47. 670 Randall Road
  48. 660 Randall Road
  49. 650 Randall Road
  50. 640 Randall Road
  51. 630 Randall Road
  52. 619 Randall Road
  53. 1685 East Valley Road A
  54. 1685 East Valley Road B
  55. 1685 East Valley Road C
  56. 1696 East Valley Road
  57. 1760 Valley Road A
  58. 1725 Valley Road A
  59. 1705 Glenn Oaks Drive A
  60. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive B
  61. 1710 Glen Oaks Drive A
  62. 1790 Glen Oaks Drive A
  63. 1701 Glen Oaks Drive A
  64. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive A
  65. 1705 East Valley Road A
  66. 1705 East Valley Road B
  67. 1705 East Valley Road C
  68. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive N/A
  69. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive (one on top of the other)
  70. 1774 Glen Oaks Drive
  71. 1707 East Valley Road A
  72. 1685 East Valley Road C
  73. 1709 East Valley Road
  74. 1709 East Valley Road B
  75. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive A
  76. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive B
  77. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive A
  78. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive B
  79. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive C
  80. 1781 Glen Oaks Drive A
  81. 1711 East Valley Road (This and what follow are adjacent to Oprah)
  82. 1715 East Valley Road A
  83. 1715 East Valley Road B
  84. 1719 East Valley Road
  85. 1721 East Valley Road A (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  86. 1721 East Valley Road B (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  87. 1721 East Valley Road C (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  88. 1694 San Leandro Lane A
  89. 1694 San Leandro Lane D
  90. 1690 San Leandro Lane C
  91. 1690 San Leandro Lane A
  92. 1694 San Leandro Lane B
  93. 1696 San Leandro Lane
  94. 1710 San Leandro Lane A
  95. 1710 San Leandro Lane B
  96. 190 Tiburon Bay Lane
  97. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane A
  98. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane B
  99. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane C
  100. 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. 2075 Alisos Drive
  6. 627 Oak Grove Lane
Along Romero Creek—
  1. 1050 Romero Canyon Road
  2. 860 Romero Canyon Road
  3. 768 Winding Creek Lane
  4. 745 Winding Creek Lane
  5. 744 Winding Creek Lane
  6. 2281 Featherhill Avenue B

Along Arroyo Paredon, between Summerland and Carpinteria, not far east of the list above, one building is marked as destroyed on Craven Lane, and 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* 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.]

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.

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 its most casual methods. (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 suite of rock 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, and 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 se strive on, especially here in California.

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 those 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 enormously to read John McPhee’s classic book The Control of Nature, which took 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 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.