Thursday, April 26 , 2018, 6:52 am | Fog/Mist 51º

 
 
 
 

Local News

No Injuries as El Capitan Canyon Cabins Washed Away By Major Flooding

5 structures were carried down rain-swollen creek below Sherpa Fire burn area; 22 vehicles also destroyed

El Capitan Canyon cabins and vehicles are hit by heavy flooding Friday morning. Click to view larger
El Capitan Canyon cabins and vehicles are hit by heavy flooding Friday morning.  (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)
Visitors who escaped from their cabin at El Capitan Canyon on Friday embrace. Click to view larger
Visitors who escaped from their cabin at El Capitan Canyon on Friday embrace. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

[Click here for a gallery of storm photos]

Major flooding below the Sherpa Fire burn area on Friday caused several cabins and nearly two dozen vehicles to wash away at the El Capitan Canyon camping resort, leading to a massive rescue effort in the area. 

Two people were rescued early on in the incident, including a woman from a van trapped in the debris flow and one person from one of the cabins that washed down the creek.

An additional 22 people were brought to safety at midday from the upper part of the canyon after being trapped by high water and debris flows, according to Capt. Dave Zaniboni of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

Rescuers used a dual-tracked vehicle to traverse the water and debris and ferry the people to safety.

All search operations were ended shortly after 1 p.m., Zaniboni said, adding that emergency officials were confident there were no victims to be found.

As the storm moved east and the sun came out around midday, the scope of the disaster became clear: five cabins had been washed down the creek and destroyed, along with 22 vehicles.

Miraculously, no injuries were reported among either those caught up in the flooding or the rescue personnel, Zaniboni said.

But the upscale camping resort took a major hit, with nearly 30 additional cabins sustaining major damage — many were believed to be totaled — and the store-restaurant reportedly filled with mud and damaged by debris carried by the rampaging stream.

The deluge was the result of almost 4 inches of rain that fell on the Sherpa Fire burn area early Friday.

Many visitors were inside the cabins, enjoying breakfast and morning coffee, when the flooding occurred, and a Santa Barbara County Fire Department water rescue team responded at about 9:30 a.m. The Sheriff's Department Search and Rescue team also was sent to the scene.

The private park is on the north side of Highway 101, and four cabins broke off their foundations and washed down the overflowing river, ending up against the Calle Real embankment on the north side of Highway 101.

A fifth cabin was washed under the freeway, along with seven of the vehicles.

El Capitan Flooding from Noozhawk on Vimeo.

Among those caught up in the harrowing scene were Shane Vernon and Nicole Pritchett of Miami, Florida, who were visiting with friends .

They woke up to the flash-flood alert on their phones Friday morning. 

"We didn't know what that meant," Pritchett told Noozhawk, adding that it was raining heavily at the time, although initially they were not concerned.

Rescuers search through mud and debris on Friday for possible victims of flash flooding in El Capitan Canyon. Miraculously, no injuries were reported. Click to view larger
Rescuers search through mud and debris on Friday for possible victims of flash flooding in El Capitan Canyon. Miraculously, no injuries were reported. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Pritchett went outside and saw that "trees were just losing it down the river," she said. 

"And they're all inside taking some photos. All of a sudden it (the water) comes up to my feet, and I run inside like, we gotta move, and before we could, our cabin started going down the river," Pritchett said. 

Everyone got out, Vernon said, but the cabin moved at least 10 yards before they escaped.

Annie Neil of San Diego, who was staying at the resort with a large family group, described a terrifying scene.

"The sound was unbelievable," Neil said. "The ground was shaking...We could see all the destroyed cabins. It was like three or five that we saw that were just washed away."

A tracked vehicle was used to rescue patrons of El Capitan Canyon who were trapped by the rain-swollen creek, mud and debris. Click to view larger
A tracked vehicle was used to rescue patrons of El Capitan Canyon who were trapped by the rain-swollen creek, mud and debris. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Lia Gardner of Mesa, Arizona, who was part of Neil's group, recalled a "full, angry river."

"“You could see the water level rising, and then all of a sudden you could see trees being ripped down and floating — like just logs and logs just floating by.”   

Nearby El Capitan State Beach and campground sustained significant damage to the entrance road and kiosk, and was evacuated Friday morning, according to Eric Hjelstrom, State Parks superintendent.

Refugio State Beach remained open, Hjelstrom said, while Gaviota State Beach never opened Friday because there were concerns about roadway flooding. 

Refugio was later evacuated and both Refugio and El Capitan state beaches were closed as of Friday night. 

A county helicopter crew that had been helping with the rescue effort at El Capitan was on its way home to its Santa Ynez base when it noticed a vehicle stranded in the swollen creek in Refugio Canyon.

The helicopter crew used a hoist to rescue a woman who was with the vehicle, and she was flown to the Santa Barbara Airport, where she was picked up by an AMR ambulance and taken to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital suffering hypothermia, Zaniboni said. 

The Sheriff's Department used a jail transportation bus to transport 19 people out of the area to a temporary Red Cross Shelter that was set up at San Marcos High School near Goleta.

There was no immediate dollar estimate of the damage, but it was sure to be considerable.

The following message was placed on the El Capitan Canyon website

"We are currently under mandatory evacuation orders and we have suffered some damage as a result of the recent storm. Our staff is closely monitoring the situation and we look forward to welcoming guests back to the Canyon soon."

Website visitors were referred to the company's Facebook page for updates: https://www.facebook.com/elcapcanyon

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Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton, staff writer Sam Goldman and outdoors writer Ray Ford contributed to this report. 

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli 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.

Twenty-two vehicles from El Capitan Canyon were carried down the rain-swollen creek and destroyed Friday, including seven that ended up near the beach on the ocean side of Highway 101. Click to view larger
Twenty-two vehicles from El Capitan Canyon were carried down the rain-swollen creek and destroyed Friday, including seven that ended up near the beach on the ocean side of Highway 101. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)
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