Sunday, January 21 , 2018, 8:51 am | Fair 41º


Local News

Bill Macfadyen: In a Flash, Montecito Floods Its Zones with a Deadly Disaster

NoozWeek’s Top 5 expands in more ways than one with a lineup of almost all flash flooding stories chronicling unprecedented death and destruction

The Mountain Drive bridge over Hot Springs Creek may have been a point of origin for some of the deadliest and destructive flash flooding downstream on Montecito Creek. Click to view larger
The Mountain Drive bridge over Hot Springs Creek may have been a point of origin for some of the deadliest and destructive flash flooding downstream on Montecito Creek. (Bill Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo via Instagram)

[Fair warning: This is an opinion column, my opinion. This is not a news story, and I am not a reporter. But I am the publisher of this website, which is why I get to write this each week. Thank you for keeping that in mind while you’re reading.]

Fire and Fury.

No, it’s not a tell-all book. It’s the nightmare many residents of Santa Barbara County’s South Coast have been living the last six weeks.

And just when you thought you were nearing the last page, along comes one more poorly constructed chapter delivered with a thud on about two hours’ notice.

It all started with the Thomas Fire, which erupted Dec. 4 near Santa Paula and laid waste to large swaths of Ventura County before raging across the mountains above Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito.

The wildfire — whose cause remains an apparent mystery — featured ash, smoke, dramatic flames, and harrowing and heroic stands by thousands of firefighters who largely prevented it from bursting down into the South Coast’s foothill neighborhoods, and beyond.

While the fire was quickly chewing through decades-old chaparral, however, it burned with such intensity that it wiped out nearly all the vegetation on the mountain faces. Even the dirt was pulverized into, essentially, puffs of fine powder.

What had been our ruggedly majestic front-country range was suddenly an ominous, unstable mass waiting like a hungry cougar for an opportunity to pounce.

I love gazing at those mountains, especially 3,200-foot Montecito Peak above my house, but I can’t deny the unmistakable sense of foreboding I got over the last few weeks.

It was mesmerizing. You knew something was coming, you just didn’t know when.

And now we do.

The first major storm of 2018 was forecast to wallop the county some time on Jan. 8, bringing with it predicted rainfall totaling as much as seven inches. Mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders were issued as flooding precautions.

Riven Rock Road was a rocky one just after dawn Jan. 9. Click to view larger
Riven Rock Road was a rocky one just after dawn Jan. 9. (Bill Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo via Instagram)

As is often the case, weather projections were not quite precise, and the day passed with little precipitation or consequence.

Just after 2 a.m. Jan. 9, the downpour came. And not just any rain; it was drenching, sideways Scottish rain, and it was hard enough to awaken even the soundest sleepers. In one five-minute period, an astonishing half-inch of rain was recorded above Montecito.

The storm was accompanied by lightning flashes and distant thunder — quite a show.

One of the flashes, however, seemed to hang in the air, and then it glowed brighter and brighter and brighter. As it turns out, a mudslide had swept a house off its foundation above Montecito’s Upper Village, severing a gas line, which then exploded around 2:30 a.m.

Towering flames reflected off the low and sodden clouds, giving an eerie cast to the sky that was all-too reminiscent of the recent blaze. But while on my porch filming whatever it was for Noozhawk, what struck me was the absence of emergency sirens. That couldn’t be good, and it wasn’t.

Simultaneously, I heard a deafening roar behind me. Having survived the 1995 flooding that destroyed our old house on Montecito Creek, I knew what that was.

No comment. Click to view larger
No comment. (Bill Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo)

Heavy rain will often cause creek stones to tumble in a rhythmical way that makes them sound like they’re boulders. Twenty-two years and 364 days before, I learned that a flash flood does not make such an entrance. Actual boulders, trees and debris are all part of one reverberating rumble. I put two and two together and realized this was the worst-case scenario.

After the roar subsided, I accompanied a neighbor back to her house down the street. She and her husband had watched the gurgling creek become a raging wall of water, and I was stunned at what I could see in the dark.

The water had stopped inches from their foundation. A 40-foot wooden bridge had been ripped from its base and flung into their yard. Car-sized boulders and massive trees had been cast about.

And the creek? It was mostly back to being a gurgle.

It was 3:45 a.m. I went home and slept for a few hours.

We had no power, no water, sporadic cell service and, of course, no Internet, which is always my biggest inconvenience.

A little after 7 a.m., I drove up my street with the goal of reaching Mountain Drive. Riven Rock Road looked impassable, even with my four-wheel drive, so I got out and walked. Well, waded through about a foot of soupy mud.

An entire wing of this house was swept into that of a neighbor’s on East Valley Lane. The bookshelves appear undisturbed. Click to view larger
An entire wing of this house was swept into that of a neighbor’s on East Valley Lane. The bookshelves appear undisturbed. (Bill Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo)

Around the bend, the pavement was littered with boulders. About a half-mile up, I was overtaken by a Santa Barbara County sheriff’s Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle that had been lumbering up the street behind me over and around the debris.

A few dozen yards higher and we were both halted by a sea of giant boulders stretching up the street as far as we could see. The deputies, who had been trailed by a pair of Montecito firefighters on foot, left their rescue vehicle in the middle of the road and began picking their way through the muck and the rock. With every step, the boulders got bigger.

About 200 yards higher, Hot Springs Creek runs alongside Riven Rock Road, although its bed is some 15 feet below the roadway. The sight at that point was jaw-dropping. The creek bed had been scoured clean but there were at least three channels now, including the one on the road itself that had had sufficient volume of water to carry rocks as big as engine blocks.

The debris field easily spanned about 60 yards and had badly damaged houses on either side.

One pinkish two-story house, across the creek, had been gutted on the ground floor and, save for a corner in the top left, had been repainted a muddy brown all the way to its eaves. Oddly, a mostly clean sheet hung over a hole in an upstairs room, and I’m guessing it indicated a rescue of some kind — clearly by helicopter since there was no way anyone could have reached the property by any other means.

A gas line break prevented me from going the rest of the way to the Mountain Drive bridge, which I could see had lost its guardrails. So I turned around and trekked to the bottom of Parra Grande Lane, where the sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team was already trying to do welfare checks at what few residences remained.

The scene was unimaginable. An entire village of cottages was simply gone. Cars were mangled and crunched like soda cans. Garage doors and walls were blown out. Huge trees had crushed houses large and small. Click here for my Instagram photos.

No comment. Click to view larger
No comment. (Bill Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo)

Interestingly, the streets were filled with neighbors who were out to survey the damage and help where they could. I had not expected such a crowd.

Whereas only a few of my neighbors had defied the mandatory evacuation order during the fire, the opposite was true this time, and only a few had left. Even in Riven Rock, I was surprised to see so many people home.

Several miles to the east, hundreds of residents chose to stick it out in Romero Canyon and promptly found themselves stuck by flooding and slides. Authorities reported 300 rescue requests there.

In talking with dozens of neighbors and others that morning, the almost uniform explanation was their experience with the Thomas Fire order that had forced them out of their homes for 11 days, including five days after the blaze had moved on and they could see with their own eyes that they were no longer in danger.

Either they simply did not believe emergency officials this time or they were emotionally spent from packing up and leaving right before Christmas, returning and unpacking, and repeat. They had weighed the risks and decided to stay put.

What’s more, the boundaries of the initial mandatory and voluntary evacuation zones for the flooding were strikingly similar to those issued for the fire. Everything above East Valley Road/Highway 192 was mandatory, and everything below was voluntary.

Tragically, the worst of the death and destruction appears to have occurred in the voluntary zones.

I’ve been there, done that. My condolences. Click to view larger
I’ve been there, done that. My condolences. (Bill Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo via Instagram)

As several officials have pointedly told me, I’m no emergency expert. But I am a stubborn journalist — and a flood survivor — and I do question whether a flash flood on a creek with an alluvial plain can be expected to behave the same way as a wildfire.

All that will be discussed — and, no doubt, litigated — far into the future. The urgency and the focus now is on the people still known to be missing three days after the disaster — 43 reported on Thursday afternoon, but only five Friday morning.

The afternoon of Jan. 11, Sheriff Bill Brown declared that all of Montecito would now be sealed off, for at least a week and maybe longer. He wants everyone out, and anyone who leaves will not be allowed to return.

The scope of this catastrophe cannot be overstated. In addition to what almost certainly were the horrifying, violent and terror-filled deaths of 18 people, more than 100 houses were destroyed and hundreds more damaged. Highway 101 could be closed for more than a week.

The combination of water and mud is lethal to possessions, with utter ruin occurring within days if not hours of continued exposure. Insurance decisions and outcomes may come as a calamitous shock to many policy holders.

Montecito’s already precarious water supply has suffered severe impacts from the destruction of key pipes. Utilities’ infrastructure has been obliterated, and likely will take weeks to repair or replace.

Local businesses, particularly those in retail and restaurants, are facing possibly insurmountable odds. It’s been a grueling six weeks for public safety personnel and resources.

Please keep the families of the dead and missing in your prayers and thoughts, as well as the other flood victims. In a community as small as ours, I suspect we all know one or more people grieving and grappling with what’s to come.

While we continue to process the bad news, I highly recommend listening for the good. So many miracles and acts of heroism and grace occur when circumstances are at their most hopeless.

Noozhawk will be telling some of those stories as we can, but please understand that our own small organization has been taxed to the max, as well. Our primary objective is to keep up with the deluge of essential breaking news, but that does not mean we’re not interested. Thank you for sharing your tips with our news team.

Our Tom Bolton, Giana Magnoli, Janene Scully, Brooke Holland, Josh Molina and Ray Ford have been firing on all cylinders for more than a month now. We love our jobs, but even we will admit we could use a break from all these emergencies. Maybe next month, right?

Our photographers also are outdoing themselves. Thank you to Ray, Peter Hartmann and the Urban Hikers, Zack Warburg, Ryan Cullom, Diego Topete and J.C. Corliss for providing us with the bigger picture. (Thanks also to Mike Eliason of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department for his many photo contributions.)

And thank you to you, too. According to our Google Analytics, we had 322,651 readers this past week, 93,349 on Jan. 9 alone. We’re humbled to have you counting on us as your source for local news, and it’s our privilege to serve you.

I need to call it a night, so I’m just going to list our Top 10 most-read stories of the week. The usual Best of Bill will return next week.

1. At Least 8 Dead as Massive Flooding, Mud Flows Swamp Montecito and Carpinteria

2. Death and Injury Toll Rises as Rescuers Continue Scouring Flood-Ravaged Montecito Neighborhoods

3. Highway 101 Closed in Santa Barbara Area Until at Least Monday Due to Mudslides, Flooding

4. From the Air, Enormity of Montecito Flood Disaster Comes Into Focus

5. Evacuation Orders Issued as Powerful Storm Takes Aim at Santa Barbara County

6. Deadly Storm Is Not Done — More Rain Due in Flooded Areas of Santa Barbara County

7. Storm Causes Major Damage to Montecito Water Distribution System, South Coast Conduit

8. Coroner Releases Names of 17 People Killed in Montecito Floods

9. Mandatory Evacuation Zone Expanded in Montecito Flood Disaster Area

10. Authorities Release Name of Pedestrian Struck and Killed in Santa Barbara

                                                                 •        •        •

Last Year on Noozhawk

What was our most-read story this time last year? Former Lompoc Police Volunteer Pleads Guilty to 17 Child-Sex Counts.

                                                                 •        •        •

Bill Macfadyen’s Story of the Week

Hooray for Hollywood, where you make it so you can fake it: The Business of Fake Hollywood Money.

                                                                 •        •        •

Watch It

Sorry, but I just couldn’t resist.

(AwakenWithJP video)

                                                                 •        •        •

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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk and Instagram: @bill.macfadyen, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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