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Coast Village Road reopens for business

By   /   Friday, January 5th, 2018  /   Comments Off on Coast Village Road reopens for business

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A view of Highway 101 from Olive Mill Road after it was closed because of flooding and mudslides and what the highway looks like now.

Updated at 3:20 p.m. Jan. 23:

Coast Village Road reopened to business owners the morning on Jan. 23 and, by around noon, dozens of customers had been allowed into the area to shop at local stores and restaurants.

Owners were able to stock up and contact customers before the roads opened, but a few proprietors were still cleaning up mud and rocks while utility workers and trucks carting debris continued to roll past.

“We’re just so happy to be up and running,” said Steve Crompton, general manager of the Honor Bar.  “We were fortunate that we didn’t sustain a lot of damage. Just some mud, and a little bit of elbow grease cleaned that up.”

By 12:30 p.m. around two dozen customers were eating lunch at the restaurant, and Crompton said he was happy to offer “a little bit of normalcy, a place to grab a beer.”

A few doors down, Richie’s Barber Shop was giving haircuts to a few regular customers while phones rang to book more appointments. Both Richie’s and Honor Bar operated out of pop-up locations in downtown Santa Barbara while the evacuations were in effect.

Some signs advertised discounts on clothing and other goods, but Leslie Person, owner of Letter Perfect, said that will be a tough proposition after lost sales dating back to early December when the Thomas fire began.

In the meantime, her insurance policy was limiting coverage to the days of the mandatory evacuation, and several business owners said they were working with landlords to recoup rent for days they didn’t have access to the building.

“If I can’t get to the business, it’s like cutting off my hands,” Person said. “As a business owner, you have to ask the right questions, not wait for them to offer up information … My greatest hope is that they step up to the plate and do the right thing.”

The Honor Bar had been closed for two weeks since the flooding began Jan. 9 but was able to retain all of its staff, Crompton said.

“It’s going to rebound,” he said.

Updated at 12:25 p.m. Jan. 23:

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, has introduced a bill that would require fire insurance policies to cover losses caused by mudslides that follow a wildfire.

The intent is to help residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the Montecito mudslides.

SB 917 states that an insurance policy must cover loss or damage resulting from a landslide, as long as that landslide is attributable to a condition already covered by the policy.

Even though a majority of Montecito residents are required to have property insurance, many had not purchased flood coverage. This left most homeowners wondering if they will be covered.

“We have seen at least one insurance company step up to the plate for these residents following the mudslide, but for others, questions still remain regarding whether their fire insurance policies will cover the losses from these fire-caused mudslides,” Jackson said in a news release. ”My bill makes it clear that current law requires coverage of these fire-caused events.”

Updated at 11:50 a.m. Jan. 22:

Highway 101 is open again after Caltrans spent 13 days laboring to remove mud, water and debris, restoring the usual commuter crush Jan. 22.

The announcement came via Twitter on Jan. 21, a full 12 hours before it had been scheduled to reopen. Highway on and off ramps remained closed in the Summerland and Montecito areas where evacuation orders remained in effect.

“There are still definitely some work and ramps that need repairs,” said Susana Cruz with Caltrans public affairs.

Since the flooding began on Jan. 9, 1,500 trucks removed 210,000 tons of material from the highway, Cruz said. A total of 350 staff between Caltrans and Granite Construction contractors worked a combined 45,000 hours during the crisis at nine locations over 11 miles of highway. The price tag for the work came to $11.25 million.

To allow the large trucks to maintain access to the affected area, southbound off ramps at Olive Mill Road, San Ysidro Road, Sheffield Drive and Evans Avenue were still closed off. Highway 192 also remained closed while crews continued repairs there.

Updated at 12:40 p.m. Jan. 19:

Highway 101 is likely to reopen by Jan. 22 after crews work to rebuild drainage systems and repair guardrails on a stretch near Olive Mill Road.

CalTrans confirmed Jan. 19 that the water and heavy debris that had covered the highway several feet deep had been removed and crews were removing residual dirt.

“The site is in good shape and we’re working 24 hours a day to get it opened by Monday,” said Public Information Officer Jim Shivers. “I would just describe it as tremendous progress by the whole team.”

The agency is still working to make sure that drainage facilities and culverts are in good working order, he said, which will be critical in the event of more rain.

No rain is forecast for the next seven days, said Joe Sirard, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. However, winds of 20-30 mph  could blow down trees or power lines that were already damaged by the Thomas fire and flooding, posing problems for repair efforts.

State Route 192 was still under mandatory evacuation, but was open to utility companies,  debris trucks and emergency responders. Some bridges will likely need added railing that was swept away, Shivers said.

Once Highway 101 is reopened it will lighten the load on surrounding roadways, he added.

“Once we can get Highway 101 open, that will allow some of the larger trucks to use the 101, not use neighboring county roads, and county law enforcement and emergency responders will begin the process of getting people back in the neighborhoods.”

At presstime Jan. 17:

Nine days after deadly mudslides effectively severed the tri-county region’s main commercial artery, business owners were left hanging as officials would not pinpoint when Highway 101 would reopen or evacuation orders would be lifted.
Crews were working to rebuild drainage systems that were still seeping water into a one-mile stretch of Highway 101 but, at press time on Jan. 17, the earliest target date for reopening was Jan. 22, according to statements from Caltrans District Director Timothy Gubbins.
When the rain stopped on Jan. 9, Leslie Person found herself stranded between a mandatory evacuation zone and a closed highway in Carpinteria. She wanted to file insurance paperwork for her Coast Village Road business, Letter Perfect, but had no cell reception and no internet.
Evacuations, smoke from the Thomas fire and canceled holiday parties meant business for the stationary store had already plunged around 40 percent in December, Person said.
“It’s really devastating for our business. It will really depend on whether our insurance is responsive at all,” she said. “I cannot get out of this area, I can’t get to work, I can’t get to my documents.”
The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner added around 2,000 more seats per day to help ferry residents and employees between Ventura and Santa Barbara, but passengers still packed into cars until it was standing room only.
Highway 101 would normally serve an estimated 100,000 vehicles per day — including delivery of supplies to businesses like hotels and hospitals.
“A lot of our business is in Los Angeles and Ventura and Santa Paula, and we can’t get there,” said Pete Jordano, CEO of food and beverage distribution company Jordano’s.
Around 20 percent of the company’s business goes to schools, which have been closed for four weeks or more, he said.
“That’s one-twelfth of our year that we can’t serve our customers,” Jordano said, adding that several of the Coast Village Road restaurants numbered among his customers. “They have no income coming in and we can’t deliver them anything. I’ve been in business personally 58 years and it’s the worst situation from a business standpoint. I’m not going to get caught up complaining because so many people have lost their lives, their homes, their jobs.”
Trucks made the five-hour trek through San Luis Obispo County and down to Bakersfield to deliver to customers in Ventura and LA counties and pick up Jordano’s wholesale products from Los Angeles.
“Our biggest single hotel account is the Ojai Valley Inn,” he said. “Between the fires and the floods, they’ve been closed, and we couldn’t even deliver if we wanted to … We’re the principal food supplier for Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, and we can’t just tell them we can’t make a delivery. We have to find a way to do it.”
The 41 cottages and rooms at San Ysidro Ranch that had escaped damage from the Thomas fire saw substantial destruction from mud and debris flows on the property.
Just a few weeks before, Kimball Ranch had lost every structure on its 120 acres, including the family’s house, barn, garage, workshop, ranch office and guest house, leaving them to try and run a business with cell phones and a single computer tower they had saved from the flames.
In the days after the fire, insurance claims for their home took a backseat to keeping the business running, said Rachael Laenen, assistant ranch manager and daughter of fifth-generation farmer Gordon Kimball, including getting water to the avocado trees that had survived and getting payroll out.
“We’re still on the ranch. The problem is we have no tools, no tractors, no equipment, no nothing. That’s the next priority,” Kimball said. “It’s surprising how difficult it is to buy things. It’s one thing when you want something today and you go out and get it. Even buying tractors and ranch equipment — none of it was available … it just takes time.”

FROM DAMAGE TO DEBT

Retailers and entrepreneurs reeling from two natural disasters in quick succession are finding recovery assistance in the form of more debt — debt they might not be able to afford.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency amended the major disaster declaration Jan. 15 to include individual assistance for victims of both the fires and the flooding. Low-interest federal disaster loans of up to $2 million were also being made available to businesses and nonprofits by the Small Business Administration for repairs or replacement of property and equipment and to provide working capital through the recovery period.
The Gene Haas Foundation also gave a $200,000 seed grant to the Small Business Development Center, which created a loan program in record time to serve dozens of companies as it looked to grow the program. Ten other centers around the state pitched in funds for grants.
“As a small business owner, you don’t even know who to approach and how to figure out what’s available to you,” Kathryn Graham, owner of catering company C’est Cheese, said at a business forum Jan. 4. “We cannot even shoulder the debt that we have, and that’s why we didn’t have the reserves.”
Having gotten access to the internet and pre-paid cell phones, Person said she was trying to get hard drives and files so that her employees could work remotely.
“We’re desperately trying to keep our employees working. That said, how do we get income?” she said. “Like everyone else, I’m reticent to take on any more debt. I don’t want to do that. I just want to operate my business. I want to get in and work. And all that pales in comparison to the loss of life.”
Some other options proposed at the Jan. 4 meeting included delaying or forgiving payments of transient occupancy tax for hotels, deferring sales taxes and forgiving fees to the city for outdoor seating that was unusable during or after the fire due to smoke and ash.
Person said she made a call to her landlord and negotiated to pay rent in weekly installments for a couple of months until she got more working capital.
“People need to be creative,” she said. “I’m not asking for a handout. I’m asking for you to give me some grace.”
Though the fire is what brought the meeting together, conversations around permitting and fees have been ongoing for six months or more, said Matt LaBrie, president of the board for Downtown Santa Barbara.
As they begin to look at rebuilding, homeowners and business owners will have to navigate a “maze of regulations and fees and expenses and make sure they don’t eat up the insurance money,” Kimball said.

GOOD WORKS

Up and down the Central Coast, companies pitched in to help with recovery efforts.

“The reality sets in that these were your neighbors, that these are the people that you walked your dog with or your kids played with,” said David Sigman, general manager of the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club, which served as a command center for emergency response efforts. “It was very humbling at times. You’re dealing with people who are losing everything in their lives.”
During the Thomas fire, the property served as an evacuation zone for around 250 horses, cows, alpacas and other large animals before it, too, had to be evacuated.
Helicopters used fields as landing areas during both incidents, and so many volunteers poured in that they often had to redirect them to Goleta-based Direct Relief or other agencies, Sigman said.
Now, the business is trying to get back to its normal routine, but the neighborhood is nearly at a standstill.
“There’s no getting in or out,” he said. “People still want to come in, members want to get back to normal routine, and we want to provide that, but there’s still no safe way to get to our club.”
Preferred Rental Services offered its rental listing as a free service to families whose homes were lost or damaged in the disasters, and the Santa Barbara Association of Realtors created a list of furnished rentals. LogMeIn employees turned out to help clean equipment and offices for the Santa Barbara County sheriff search and rescue teams.
“We’re entrepreneurs, and we got into this because we like to think big,” said Julia Mayer, owner of coffee shop The French Press in Santa Barbara.

Updated at 11:15 a.m. Jan. 15:

The death toll from the mudslides and debris flows that devastated parts of Montecito and Summerland on Jan. 9 has risen to 20, officials said Jan. 14.
Four people remain missing and search and rescue efforts are still underway, according to a Santa Barbara County incident report issued at 7 a.m. Jan. 15.
The number of single family homes destroyed has climbed to 73, with 161 damaged. No commercial properties were destroyed but 18 were damaged.

Updated at 9:40 p.m. Jan. 13:

Morgan Christine Corey, 25, was found buried in mud near Olive Mill Road at 9 a.m. on Jan. 13, increasing the number of dead to 19, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.

Her 12-year-old sister, Sawyer Corey, was also killed by the mudslide. Five people remain missing.

Updated at 5:10 p.m. Jan. 12:

The California Highway Patrol announced Jan. 12 that Highway 101 is expected to be closed indefinitely.
Former estimates of opening it by Jan. 15 were optimistic, said CHP Capt. Cindy Pontes, and it’s now unknown how long it will take to clear. Water has flooded over center medians of around a mile of the highway and water continues to pour in, even as crews work to pump it out.
The agency is working on an alternate route, but Highway 192 was damaged in the flooding and remains closed.
Sheriff Bill Brown announced that Joseph Francis Bleckel, 87, had been found dead, bringing the total number of casualties up to 18.
Brown released the names of six others who were missing at a news conference, though one was found during the announcement, bringing the total down to five.

Laura Camp, public information coordinator for the Montecito Water District, said that teams had conducted helicopter surveillance today and continue to make progress on repairing known infrastructure damage and assessing new areas.

Emergency potable water distribution sites have been established since residents have been advised to limit water consumption to essential uses only and boil water before using it.
Contractors are working on repairing water main breaks and fire hydrants, Camp said, and are looking for solutions at creek crossings that have been “completely wiped out.”
All terrain armored vehicles have been instrumental in helping emergency responders reach otherwise inaccessible areas, including the Casa Dorinda Retirement Community, where more than 300 residents and staff were evacuated.
The vehicles “normally are used for a barricaded suspect or an armed situation of some kind, but they have proved invaluable in allowing us to reach areas that we normally would have been never able to get to using our standard two-wheel-drive vehicles,” Brown said.
A Recovery and Assistance Center is tentatively targeted to open on the Jan. 17 to aggregate resources for Thomas fire and storm victims, said Suzanne Grimmesey, with the Santa Barbara Department of Behavioral Wellness, including housing, redevelopment, loss of business, health and human services.

Updated at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 12:

Officials warned residents in mandatory evacuation zones for the Montecito and Summerland mudslides that rescue and repair efforts could take up to two weeks.

Unincorporated areas of Santa Barbara County and areas of Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria north of Highway 192, as well as a stretch of Summerland and Montecito that extends to the ocean are under mandatory evacuation orders.

Five people were still officially considered missing, though the numbers were expected to fluctuate as the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office fielded queries via phone call, social media and family members, said Sheriff Bill Brown. More than 40 such cases were being investigated.

Los Padres National Forest officials announced Jan. 12 that the Thomas Fire had been fully contained at 281,893 acres.

“The Thomas fire is now the largest fire in California’s modern recorded history. This would be significant if it were summer; however, it is unprecedented for December and January, and it serves as a testimony to the extreme volatility of the fuels,” the department wrote in an update.

Updated at 5:10 p.m. Jan. 11:

Officials elevated the current public safety exclusion zone to a mandatory evacuation zone to clear roadways for first responders and repair crews ahead of the anticipated arrival of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Jan. 11.

“Today auto and pedestrian traffic in the exclusionary zone … has reached a point that it is seriously impacting the ability of search and rescue,  public works, other first responders and repair crews to clear roadways and to engage in search and rescue, repair and damage assessment operations,” said Sheriff Bill Brown.
The affected area stretches from Hot Springs Road to Ortega Ridge Road and Ladera Lane, from national forest lands down to the beach.
Brown also released the names of the 17 Montecito residents who perished in the flood, ranging in age from 3 years old to 89 years old. They are Jonathan Benitez, Kailly Benitez, Martin Cabrera-Munoz, David Cantin, Sawyer Corey, Peter Fleurat, Josephine Gower, John McManigal, Alice Mitchell, James Mitchell, Mark Montgomery, Caroline Montgomery, Marilyn Ramos, Rebecca Riskin, Roy Rohter, Peerawat Sutthithepn and Richard Taylor.
Most of the area remains without utility services and many were still without water, though the South Coast conduit is currently providing water to the Ortega reservoir. A boil water notice remains in effect for the entire district, said Nick Turner, general manager of the Montecito Water District. The district is gaining access to more of the water system and completed an assessment, finding additional main breaks.
The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department closed access to beaches due to high levels of bacteria in the water. Hazardous materials have been reported to be washing up on beaches and all ocean water should be considered contaminated until further notice.
“We are making progress every day on opening up the transportation networks that will allow increased relief efforts,” said Tom Fayram, deputy public works director. “Our transportation and flight control crews are working diligently to open up bridges and channels. In many cases, the entire creek flow is going down a channel and onto U.S. 101, and until we get that resolved, it will be difficult to open that freeway, so that is one of our No. 1 priority.”
Debris basins that had been cleaned out the prior week in preparation for the winter are now “absolutely chock full” with material, he said.
“We are going to have a lot of equipment in there. We have to move fast. The Corps of Engineers will be working 24 hours a day. There will be multiple dump trucks running throughout the area, and the faster we can get this done, the faster we can get things opened up and prepare for more rain.”
Updated at 4 p.m. Jan. 11:

Several missing people have been accounted for in the flooding and mudslides that struck south Santa Barbara County as of Jan. 11, although eight remained missing in the 30 square miles of disaster area.

Shelters continued to serve evacuees at Santa Barbara City College and Ventura College. Families looking for information were urged to visit the Family Assistance Center at the First Presbyterian Church at 21 E. Constance Ave. in Santa Barbara, and All Saints By the Sea Episcopal Church set up a triage center offering medical assistance in Montecito.

The Earl Warren Showgrounds were sheltering large animals, while the Santa Barbara Humane Society and San Roque Pet Hospital were open to board pets.

Impact Hub and Regus Santa Barbara offered free coworking space to business owners and anyone else in need of WiFi. Procore and Graphiq employees had already settled in, Impact Hub said.

Amtrak had reopened Pacific Surfliner service between Santa Barbara and Oxnard on a modified schedule, but bus connections were still suspended with the continued shutdown of Highway 101.

Goleta-based Direct Relief purchased an $18,000 all terrain vehicle from Santa Barbara Motorsports for donation to the Montecito fire department for ongoing search and rescue operations, said Communications Director Tony Morain. The nonprofit had received an estimated $10,000 in online donations, though checks mailed in were likely to have been disrupted by the road closures.

It also had standing inventory available to nearby hospitals in case of supply interruption from Highway 101, Morain said.

“I think it’s still kind of in the search and rescue phase, and just the damage here, it’s going to take a long time to recover,” he said. “People are going to have to relocate for a while.”

At press time Jan. 10:

As the death toll from the mudslides that ravaged Montecito and other areas of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties hit 17 at press time Jan. 10, the storm that destroyed more than 100 properties had also become a significant economic event.

With Highway 101 not expected to fully reopen until Jan. 15, commerce on the South Coast had ground to a halt with regional companies scrambling to work around the road blockage.

Cottage Health CEO Ron Werft said at a Jan. 10 press conference that 38 of his employees got to work by boat from Ventura and others were transported by air.

With Union Pacific tracks under a layer of mud and rock in Montecito, there was no word on when Amtrak service might resume along the Central Coast at a time when rail is an increasingly popular option for people traveling between Ventura and Santa Barbara.

At press time Jan. 10, 100 residences and eight commercial structures were destroyed with another 300 homes and 20 commercial buildings damaged. Among the buildings damaged were high-end properties along Montecito’s Coast Village Road.

Water quality in the area served by the Montecito Water District was so severely compromised that residents were ordered to boil water before using it. The inability to supply potable water was a key factor that triggered the evacuation of the Westmont College campus.

The sheriff’s office declared a mandatory public safety exclusion zone in the communities of Summerland, Montecito and Carpinteria.

Dozens of businesses that had just begun to sketch out how to restore losses from the Thomas fire were thrown back into emergency response mode.

“We’re just kind of in shell shock,” said Sharon Byrne, executive director of the Coast Village Association.

Many in the area didn’t expect the amount of rain that caused the debris and flooding, Byrne said, leading them not to evacuate when warnings went out.

“It’s a tough hit, because we were also in the mandatory evacuation zone for the Thomas fire,” she said. “We lost a lot of business. December is the make-it month for many, many merchants, and they didn’t make it. A lot of merchants were kind of in a precarious position coming into this, but now it’s really bad.”

Streets are expected to be mostly cleared by Jan. 12 in the Coast Village Road area, but several businesses including Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara and the Montecito Inn took on three to four feet of water and mud.

“For a business community that’s still reeling from essentially losing the entire holiday shopping season, now you’ve got this,” said Ken Oplinger, president of the Chamber of the Santa Barbara Region.

Around 10,000 people a day that would be commuting to Santa Barbara are cut off due to road closures, he said, depleting sales for restaurants, retail and other general services. Businesses are also struggling to keep pace when many of their employees are stranded offsite.

“The further difficulty as far as I understand it is that it’s not just Santa Barbara and Goleta. Carpinteria is more or less cut off.”

Only two of her staff were not blocked from either the north or the south, said Kathy O’Dell, CEO of Waxing Poetic, which has a storefront in the Funk Zone and ships products to more than 500 stores nationally from its office in Carpinteria.

“We saw what happened when absolutely no one was shopping and visiting any of the downtown areas during the fire,” she said. “Now we physically can’t get there.”

Regional transportation businesses like Island Packers, Condor Express, Silver Air and Santa Barbara Airbus all collaborated to provide alternative transportation for hospital staff that lived in Ventura and Oxnard, relieving caregivers who had worked multiple shifts in a row, said Werft.

The ongoing disaster will have incalculable impacts to commerce in the long-term, economists said, prompting a larger conversation about the region’s resiliency and infrastructure. Business leaders were unanimous in their calls for a central, unifying effort to restore lost economic activity.

With Highway 101 closed, customers may be diverted through the Coast Village area, Byrne said, helping store owners there return to normal operations — right in the middle of the slowest month of the year.

“It’s not the greatest economic recovery plan, but that’s where we’re at. This is a lot of disaster for one small community.”

A big factor in the economic recovery of the region will be the pace of rebuilding homes that were destroyed.

But the mudslide also revealed the risks of building in areas prone to flooding and with a flood hazard still present, local governments and property owners may be skittish about rebuilding in an area that could flood again.

Public safety experts also warned that with areas denuded of their natural flood protection by the Thomas fire, flood-prone areas will remain at risk for years to come.

Updated at 5:25 p.m. Jan. 9:

Santa Barbara County officials confirmed 13 fatalities from flash flooding and debris flows in Montecito and Summerland on Jan. 9.

More fatalities are expected as active search and rescue operations continue, said Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown. Crews were working to reach and evacuate 300 people stranded in the Romero Canyon area, and earlier counts had at least two dozen people still missing.

Around 7,000 people lived in areas that received mandatory evacuation orders, and another 23,000 were issued voluntary evacuation notices the prior evening. Estimates are not yet available on how many structures have been destroyed, but Brown described it as looking like “a World War I battlefield,” with several dozen structures damaged.

Police departments throughout the Tri-Counties responded to the emergency, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is expected to send a 100-person search and rescue team. Additionally, members of the National Guard and air units from Ventura County, the U.S. Coast Guard and the California Highway Patrol had joined the recovery efforts.

The incident coincides with a flu epidemic, said Cottage Health CEO Ron Werft. The hospital had 163 patients in Santa Barbara and Carpinteria, 20 of whom were being treated for storm-related injuries and more than 40 of whom were being treated for the flu.

It had 1,377 staff on hand to respond to the crises, but 260 who live in Oxnard and Ventura had found themselves unable to reach work with the roads impassable.

Regional businesses like Island Packers, Condor Express, Silver Air and Santa Barbara Airbus had all collaborated to provide alternative transportation to get caregivers into the county to relieve staff who had worked two or more shifts, Werft said. Surgeries that were scheduled for the main operating room are able to proceed, he added.

Tom Fayram, Santa Barbara County deputy public works director, said rainfall levels were unprecedented for a burn area surface.

“Over the last several weeks, we’ve been working feverishly to clear debris basins, including up to last night with Cal Fire strike teams doing absolutely everything we could do in advance of the storm,” he said.

Teams are working to restore drainage and roadways, said.

“We will have more storms — it is January — so we will be working feverishly in the future.”

Updated at 11 a.m. Jan. 9:

Severe flooding and mudslides Jan. 9 shut down routes between Santa Barbara and Ventura, slowing traffic to a halt and prompting evacuations and rescue efforts in Montecito and Summerland.

Road closures included Highway 101, which had flooded on the northbound side at Seacliff Road and the southbound side at the Milpas and Hot Springs Road exits.

State routes 33 and 150 were also closed, and two traffic collisions had been reported as drivers struggled with rain, mud and debris.

Reports indicate that there have been as many as five fatalities related to the flooding and ongoing efforts to rescue residents trapped in their homes. Several structures in Montecito were destroyed, according to news reports, and electric power and internet service was disrupted.

County officials asked residents to keep roads clear to allow emergency personnel into the impacted areas. They were also asked to seek high ground if possible, or shelter in place, avoiding power lines and trees that might be blown down by strong winds.

Adverse weather conditions were also reported for North County, which was under voluntary evacuation beginning in the afternoon on Jan. 8 in the areas around the July Alamo fire, though no major highway closures were reported.

Rainfall in Ventura County was not as intense as expected, said Eric Buschow, a sergeant with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.

“The problem with those closures is that it essentially cuts off people from Ventura and Ojai going to Santa Barbara,” he said, meaning that business traffic was forced to detour around using Interstate 5. “It’s a significant impact as far as the morning commute and people’s ability to get northbound, and I don’t know when that’s going to change.”

Around 33 homes in the Matilija Canyon and Wheeler Gorge areas were cut off by rockslides, Buschow said.

A helicopter will be sent in to check on residents who did not evacuate after it assists with rescue efforts in the Montecito area, he said.

“So far, things are looking pretty good here, and our hearts go out to the folks up in Santa Barbara County,” Buschow said.

Updated at 3:50 p.m. Jan. 8:

Heavy rainfall is expected in areas burned by the Thomas fire on Jan. 8-9, leading authorities to issue evacuation orders in areas prone to flooding and mudslides.

Mandatory evacuations were announced for unincorporated areas of Ojai, and voluntary evacuations were put in place for the Casitas Springs and upper Ojai communities, including near Thomas Aquinas College. An advisory message was also sent out to residents in the city of Ojai and in unincorporated Santa Paula.

Updated at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 8:

Clouds hovering over the Thomas fire burn scar are expected to drop two to seven inches of rain Jan. 8-9, prompting flood watches and evacuations in parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Coastal areas, such as the La Conchita and Carpinteria communities that were evacuated just weeks ago as the fire marched north, can expect to see two to four inches of rain, said Ryan Kittel, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Oxnard. In the foothills, moderate to heavy rainfall in the early morning hours on Jan. 9 is expected to reach four to seven inches of rain, with the fire-stricken Ojai area around four inches.

A mandatory evacuation order was issued in Santa Barbara County, telling residents of parts of Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria to leave no later than noon on Jan. 8. The order also included unincorporated areas along Tecolote Canyon, Eagle Canyon, Dos Pueblos Canyon, Gato Canyon and in the burn area from the July Whittier fire north of Goleta.

Ventura County had not issued any mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders, but the “period of most concern” was expected to be late Jan. 8, delivering half an inch to one inch per hour, said Sgt. Eric Buschow with the Ventura County Sheriffs Office.

Highways 101, 33 and 150 were also areas of concern. Residents can pick up sandbags at local fire stations or stay updated at the VCEmergency.com or VenturaCountyRecovers.org websites, Buschow said.

“If people feel that there’s an imminent threat in their neighborhood, don’t wait for us to notify you,” he added, saying that residents should leave immediately if they feel unsafe.

Flash flood watches had been ordered for both counties, as well as most of Los Angeles County, which also suffered from fires in early December. Forecasters were on the alert to issue warnings if flooding or mudslides were imminent.

Winds could also reach 30-40 mph in the coastal and valley areas, Kittel said, and gusts of 60-70 mph in the mountains, potentially felling trees or branches.

At press time Jan. 3:

First came the fire, and now the region is rushing to prevent the floods.

Dozens of geologists, hydrologists and meteorologists convened to begin an assessment of the massive Thomas fire burn area, using federal satellite imagery to try to assess the areas at the highest risk for flooding, erosion and debris flows.

“It’s going to be a long-term process,” Kevin McGowan told the Ventura County Board of Supervisors on Dec. 26. “This is the largest watershed assessment that we’ve ever done in our county for this large of a burn scar. It’s a pretty big lift, but we have a lot of experts on our hands.”

Around 250 homes were lost or damaged in the unincorporated areas of the county, and 427 structures were destroyed in the city of Ventura.  That accounted for about half the damage from the fire.

Teams included representatives from the federal Burn Area Emergency Response team and the California Watershed Emergency Response team, as well as local resources like the Casitas Municipal Watershed District and the Ventura County Office of Emergency Services.

“It’s not good news,” said Ventura County Water Resources Deputy Director Arne Anselm. “After the fire burns an area, the soil becomes less permeable to water, so the water is going to flow at a faster rate and bring with it some debris … Less water is going to be able to infiltrate into groundwater, which is not good news for our groundwater resources, and it’s not good news for our habitat.”

The primary focus is protecting people and property in areas below where the fire burned that would now be prone to mudslides or flooding.

Residents should also contact their insurance provider about flood insurance immediately, they said, since most policies take 30 days to go into effect.

“We’re kind of in an assessment mode, and once we get past that, we’ll go into mitigation mode,” said Ron Merckling, water conservation and public affairs manager for the Casitas water district. “The only problem with that is that it’s already January.”

The district is working with an outside agency to establish a satellite office in case of road closures due to mudslides and placing curtains and other devices in the lake to stop debris and manage incoming silt.

The good news is that rain is unexpected. The National Weather Service in Oxnard predicted a light drizzle as of press time on Jan. 3 before the sun returned to the burn area.

The bad news is that rain is unexpected.

Everything depends on rainfall, stressed Carla D’Antonio, chair of environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara.

“Unlike Northern California, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties are still in drought and never got out of it,” D’Antonio said. “The soil structure has been breaking down as the soil has dried out and the plant canopy has thinned due to drought. So there is much less cohesion to the surface layers of the soil, and now with a burned canopy there could be some very, very substantial erosion and landslides.”

Predictably, rain brings sediment plumes and other material down to the beach, she said, including flows of nitrates that can fuel algal growth near the shore. A nitrate plume will usually last around six months after a fire, but the size of the Thomas fire could mean it lasts much longer.

The fire was still smoldering at press time Jan. 3, reportedly 92 percent contained at 281,893 acres. Crews were working to repair landscape impacted by the construction of containment lines and did not expect any additional fire activity after 72 hours.

Meanwhile, the county took steps to assist those who lost property as they start to consider debris removal and the process of rebuilding.

The county passed resolutions on Dec. 26 that established programs and deadlines for debris removal and waived fees for homeowners looking to live in temporary dwellings on their properties while they rebuild.

Phase 1 cleanup is already underway, with cleanup crews removing all the obvious and visible hazardous waste from around 400 properties.

Homeowners who do not submit an application to have the rest of the debris removed by a licensed contractor by Feb. 8 or those who don’t have all the debris removed by June 1 will be declared a public health nuisance.

The county is also eligible to participate in the CalRecycle program through the California Office of Emergency Services, which estimates costs of debris cleanup at an average of $90,000 per property. Around 80 percent of homes usually participate in this program, officials said at the Dec. 26 Board of Supervisors meeting.

The county would bear 25 percent of the costs, unless a disaster declaration is made by the president, which would then shift another 18.75 percent of the total cost to federal agencies. On Jan. 2, the president approved some public infrastructure recovery assistance as well as hazard mitigation assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but did not approve individual assistance.

The county would also be responsible for collecting any eligible funds from insurance policies that are slated for debris removal through the CalRecycle program.

“These are hillside homes, so maybe the people are more well off but there are a lot folks who are renters who are underinsured, a lot of seniors who are underinsured, a lot of farmworker families as well, so there were a lot of vulnerable populations that are affected by this fire,” said Ventura County CEO Mike Powers.

• Contact Marissa Nall at [email protected]

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