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:
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.
Up and down the Central Coast, companies pitched in to help with recovery efforts.
Updated at 11:15 a.m. Jan. 15:
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.
Updated at 5:10 p.m. Jan. 12:
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.
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.
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]