Left reeling by the 2017 Thomas Fire and the deadly Jan. 9, 2018, flash flooding and debris flows, Montecito has been on a long and arduous road to recovery.
In the aftermath of the twin disasters, improving the community’s resilience has been a top priority, and the Montecito Planning Commission heard reports on that progress last week.
The Montecito Fire Protection District, Southern California Edison and Cox Communications made presentations on their efforts and improvements, including assisting the mental health needs of first responders, a wildfire mitigation plan with the California Public Utilities Commission and enhancing the communication network.
“This is informative for us and the community,” Planning Commission chairman Charles Newman said.
Montecito Fire Protection District
Fire Chief Kevin Taylor told the commission that the district’s directors had invested more than $1 million in a “substantial” fuel reduction network over the past several years. The network provided opportunities for firefighters to protect houses and infrastructure when the Thomas Fire burned its way into the Montecito community.
After erupting the night of Dec. 4, 2017, near Santa Paula, the wildfire burned hundreds of homes in Ventura County as it swept west toward the ocean. The fire crossed into Santa Barbara County on Dec. 11 but crews had several days to prepare as it neared Montecito.
Around 300 fire trucks, and thousands of firefighters, were deployed in foothill neighborhoods when the wildfire exploded the morning of Dec. 16.
That number of engines and resources was “unprecedented” in California history and occurred because “no other incidents” were going on in the state at the time, Taylor said, adding that the engine crews — many of them from outside the area — had time to become familiar with the community and utilize the direction provided in the pre-attack plan.
While thousands of homes were threatened, only seven houses and seven other structures were lost in the fire, Taylor said. The main fire station, at 595 San Ysidro Road, experienced infrastructure problems when the backup generator malfunctioned.
“That wasn’t the real issue from the Thomas Fire,” he said. “While taken as a success related to firefighting, it exposed the weakness in our fuel reduction network, and that was our inability to protect our watershed.”
The fire moved west across the front country, and firefighters eventually stopped it in the Gibraltar Road area above Santa Barbara. Connecting the Thomas Fire to recent burn scars, including that of the 2008 Tea Fire, helped slow or stop its progress.
But the intensity and heat of the flames denuded much of the mountainside, leaving it highly susceptible to mudslides, flash flooding and debris flows.
After the two disasters, a retrospective analysis was completed by an outside consultant in wildland/urban interface firefighting. That led to updating Montecito’s community wildfire protection plan.
“The goal of those is to identify opportunities for improvement in the future to improve the resilience of our community,” Taylor explained.
Work has begun to develop an integrated fuel treatment program with Los Padres National Forest and the Santa Barbara County, Carpinteria-Summerland and Santa Barbara fire departments. The program will provide Montecito with opportunities, running north and south, if a massive fire occurs in the future, Taylor said.
Three weeks after the climax of the Thomas Fire, catastrophic flash flooding and debris flows killed 23 people and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes. It was the deadliest day in modern county history.
Pre-incident planning for such a disaster began Dec. 17, the day after the Thomas Fire burned through much of the community, he said.
“Several hundred” staged firefighters were pre-positioned in advance of the torrential downpours and anticipated debris flows the night of Jan. 8, Taylor said, “something that had never been done in Santa Barbara County before.”
More than 800 rescues, 137 of them by helicopter, were made the morning of Jan. 9. Some residents were trapped for hours by thick mud and debris.
Some first responders witnessed difficult situations while working on the front lines, and Taylor said employee physical and mental health is a top priority of his 47-member department.
He said counseling services are available through the At Ease program, a Santa Barbara Police Foundation service that offers support to first responders.
In May, a Santa Barbara conference put the focus on helping first responders deal with the toll from repeated trauma.
Taylor spoke of other ways officials are moving toward a more resilient community.
Montecito is attempting to implement a microgrid system that would deliver local power and energy to emergency facilities during system failures and outages.
The Montecito Fire Protection District information technology systems are updated and the organization has instituted a “microwave communications” backup.
The debris flow-damaged roads and bridges remain a challenge in emergency response. The district is working closely with Caltrans and the Santa Barbara County Public Works Department to restore that infrastructure on Ashley Road, East Valley Road/Highway 192, the Old Spanish Town neighborhood along Montecito Creek below Parra Grande Lane, lower Hot Springs Road at Casa Dorinda, and in the area of Cold Spring Canyon.
Southern California Edison
Michael Diaz, planning supervisor for Southern California Edison’s office in Goleta, highlighted the Thomas Fire and Montecito restoration efforts.
Twenty-four SCE power poles went down during the blaze. In addition, 20 transformers were lost and about 11,000 feet of overhead wire was replaced in the local service territory.
The debris flows took out 92 power poles, 31 transformers, 20 underground transformers, about 10,000 feet of underground cable and about 80,000 feet of overhead wire.
Diaz displayed a photograph of wires drooping down in trees as Edison crews replaced poles after Jan. 9. Piles of debris and boulders surround a utility pole in the image.
In response to the risk of wildfires, Southern California Edison filed its 2019 Wildfire Mitigation Plan with the Public Utilities Commission.
The plan aims to address and greatly reduce fire ignitions caused by utility infrastructure, said Rondi Guthrie, Edison’s government relations manager. It also is intended to further fortify the electricity system against the increasing threat of extreme conditions driven by climate change and the impacts of wildfires if they occur, she said.
About 35 percent of Edison’s service area is located in high fire risk areas, Guthrie told the Planning Commission.
“The plan takes a broad approach that includes enhanced inspections on all of the company’s overhead power lines in high fire risk areas in the immediate term to identify and remediate potential issues outside of standard inspection cycles,” she said.
“It will further harden infrastructure, bolster situational awareness capabilities, enhance operational practices, and harness the power of data and technology.”
Edison is deploying high-definition cameras, weather stations, advanced weather modeling software and computer hardware, Guthrie added. The technologies aim to increase the company’s ability to monitor micro-climates and weather in high-risk areas.
Vegetation management activities are taking place to also reduce the risk of wildfires in Edison territory, she said.
Guthrie explained a program in which the utility would shut off electricity during dangerous fire weather, adding, “We realize this is a major disruption to customers, however, the public benefits outweigh the impacts.”
Cox was unable to immediately repair cable, Internet and telephone service after the 2018 flash flooding and debris flows, which affected about 14 percent of residential customers and 18 percent of commercial customers.
“This is something never seen by our company or experienced before that,” said Carla Leal, Cox’s government affairs manager.
By Jan. 14, 2018, service was restored to about 85 percent of customers who were initially affected. The company reached 100 percent on Jan. 20, said Carl Givens, manager of ;construction and planning at Cox.
Since the debris flows, Cox has added four intersections to its fiber backbone for a total of seven to further enhance and reinforce the communication network.
In addition, permanent fiber installations are still ongoing and require coordination with Santa Barbara County officials.
— Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.