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‘Drought, Fire & Flood’ Event in Santa Barbara Focuses on Wildfire, Debris Flow

Gathering aimed to spark a conversation on improving readiness and response, and increasing the resiliency of infrastructure, businesses, homes

4 people on stage for question-answer session Click to view larger
A panel discussion concluded Wednesday’s event in Santa Barbara: ‘Drought, Fire & Flood: Climate Change and Our New Normal.’ Participants, from left, were Community Environmental Council CEO/Executive Director Sigrid Wright; retired Santa Barbara Fire Chief Pat McElroy; Maricela Morales, executive director of the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy; and Santa Barbara County First District Supervisor Das Williams. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

About 500 people received a crash course on wildfire, debris flow, climate modeling and environmental politics Wednesday afternoon during a free event at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara.

The gathering — “Drought, Fire & Flood: Climate Change and Our New Normal” — comes in response to December’s Thomas Fire, which burned 281,893 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and the subsequent deadly Montecito debris flows, which also caused infrastructure damage to the Montecito area, killed 23 people, and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes in January.

UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and Santa Barbara County nonprofit Community Environmental Council hosted the event with the goal of sparking a conversation on improving readiness and response, and what the new reality requires in policy and practice to improve the resiliency of infrastructure, businesses, homes, and the region. 

Max Moritz, UCSB Bren School adjunct professor, kicked off the brief TED-style presentation, and spoke of the dynamics of fire and factors that power a blaze.

“Resilience is linked to our perspective, and we need to change our perspective to one coexisting with fire,” Moritz said. “We need to think of fire like other natural hazards, manage our landscapes accordingly, and plan our lives accordingly so that we reduce our vulnerability in the long-term.”

Moritz said three factors are typically blamed for large wildfires: the wind, the accumulation of fuels on the landscape, and human component involved as ignition sources.

He displayed a progression map from the Thomas Fire, noting the strong winds and sundowners during the blaze. 

Moritz said the Thomas Fire “grew over 200,000 acres in the first five days,” and attributed some fire growth to strong Santa Ana wind.

Speaking to the audience, Edward Keller, environmental geology and professor of environmental studies and Earth sciences at UCSB, spoke of the severe storm that swept Montecito on Jan. 9 and factors that contributed to the destruction. 

“This total event lasted about 20 minutes,” Keller said of the debris flow. “There was at least three mud flows, maybe four… moving west to east as the rain moved.”

Unable to absorb a band of heavy rain dumped in minutes, the fire-ravaged vegetation above the Montecito area sent mud, debris and boulders to move by a 35-mph flow, Keller explained.

“We generally don’t get debris flow unless we get this wildfire force,” Keller said. “It’s like the one-two punch. It’s a fairly rare event.”

Historically, Montecito is a site for debris flow, Keller said, adding that the community “is built entirely on debris flow fans.”

Alluvial fans are a cone-shaped deposit of sediment crossed and built up by streams that shape the landscape. 

He displayed a map of Montecito canyons funneling into fans at the base of the hills.

Keller added that a debris flow is responsible for the boulder field at Rocky Nook Park in Mission Canyon in Santa Barbara. That debris flow occurred about a thousand years ago, he said.

He urged the audience to “pay attention to the weather, and the people sending the (emergency) warnings.”

The keynote speaker at the event was former FEMA director James Lee Witt, who shared his experience managing more than 350 disasters during his tenure under former President Bill Clinton’s administration.

“Over the years I have seen what climate change has done,” Witt said. “The intensities of the event have changed. Events are stronger and more frequent than the past.”

Wednesday's town hall concluded with a panel discussion, and public question-and-answer session focusing on building climate change resilience.

It featured retired Santa Barbara Fire Chief Pat McElroy, Santa Barbara County First District Supervisor Das Williams, and Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy Executive Director Maricela Morales.

Community Environmental Council CEO/Executive Director Sigrid Wright was the emcee.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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