There is growing concern that the recent storm events, which have dropped more than 30 inches of rain in the past 30 days, may have caused more damage in the Santa Barbara backcountry and other rural areas than anyone realizes.
“We simply don’t even know what we don’t know at this point,” Los Padres National Forest spokesman Andrew Madsen told me.
Others who have been able to access some parts of the backcountry have reported seeing the type of damage they’ve never seen in their careers on the forest.
Forest Closure in Place During Damage Assessment Process
As a cautionary measure, a closure order that restricts access to Los Padres National Forest for the next 60 days is now in place. Santa Barbara County and cities surrounding the forest boundary have followed suit.
While there has been a lot of grumbling because of the closure and quite a few who’ve ignored the order, forest officials would like the public to know that the impacts from the recent storms have been catastrophic and they are doing everything they can to deal with conditions on the ground.
“Right now, we are only looking at the edge of the damage,” Madsen explained. “Given the infrastructure damage, there are large parts of the forest that we cannot get to on the ground.”
To deal with this, forest officials are in the process of getting drone operators on the ground where crews, dozers or other equipment are unable to get.
“We are talking about damage that will be in the millions,” Madsen predicted. “Perhaps even in the tens of millions.
“While the 60-day period was established to provide us the time needed to deal with issues like this and to allow us to focus on understanding the scope of the disaster, what we’ve learned thus far could mean parts of the forest may be closed for much longer.”
Currently, the forest is in what is being termed an “assessment” mode and beginning to establish priorities. The first was to get access to people in more remote areas who are unable to get out. Because of the storm damage, close to 200 people were forced to shelter in place for days and were considered in serious danger.
“Getting to them was our most important priority,” Madsen said.
Fortunately, there have been no reports of deaths or serious injuries to date from the Jan. 9 storm.
Closure Being Strictly Enforced
Along with signage at access to Los Padres National Forest lands such as East Camino Cielo, Painted Cave or Gibraltar Road, to make the public aware of the closure, U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers are proactively patrolling roads and issuing citations to those who drive past the closure signs.
Last weekend, dozens of tickets were issued to people venturing into the closure area. Bicyclists, joggers and others are being turned around as well.
Madsen noted that the 60-day closure may be lifted in some areas sooner, but it is still too early to know which locations those will be.
Gibraltar Road Heavily Impacted
A drive up Gibraltar Road revealed the extent of the damage and provided a clear example of why now is not the time for the public to be in the forest or driving into it on roads like Camino Cielo or Gibraltar Road.
There are dozens of spots where the hillside has slumped onto the road, creating single-lane passage.
Even more damaging have been the slope failures below the road grade cutting beneath the roadway and causing sections to collapse.
There are at least a half-dozen spots like this that have 20- t0 30-foot vertical drop-offs that could close Gibraltar Road for months.
My own assessment as I’ve surveyed various parts of the county, including several of the local trails, and talked with those who’ve seen the damage firsthand is that storm damage is extensive, will take time and money to repair, and it could impact recreation access for quite awhile.
Areas that have been hit hardest include: the north side of Refugio Road where hillside failures have caused massive amounts of debris to cover the road and created washouts that will be difficult to repair; backcountry access points including roads into Nira Campground and the upper Santa Ynez River watershed; and perhaps most catastrophic, the Colson Canyon access road into La Brea Canyon.
“Northside Refugio is almost unrecognizable,” said County Fire Marshal Rob Hazard, whose family owns property on the front side of Refugio.
Curt Cragg, a member of the Santa Barbara County Trails Council and a valley resident, reports that hundreds of yards of the roadway are obliterated by massive mudslides.
Cragg also was able to explore road conditions near Cachuma Saddle and along Sunset Valley Road, which is the main entry point into the San Rafael Wilderness.
Though not as extensive as the Refugio damage, it appears that it may be months before access to the wilderness can be restored.
Upper Santa Ynez River Impacts
Bryan Conant, executive director of the Los Padres Forest Association, was recently able to explore the upper Santa Ynez River watersheds.
He reports there are dozens and dozens of washouts where culverts have filled with debris and cut 4- to 5-foot-deep gullies, numerous sections of the roadway that have washed away and too many mudslides to keep track of.
Conant and an LPFA volunteer were able to reach the river crossing at Juncal thanks to dozer work done by the Montecito Water District to reach Jameson Reservoir. But from there to Mono Creek, a distance of close to 5 miles that includes steep climbs up and over three major ridges, it was on mountain bike all the way.
With almost every culvert blocked by debris and most of the side drainages 4 to 5 feet deep because of the washouts, they were off their bikes every few hundred yards, crossing each on foot and then on to the next.
At one point west of P-Bar-Flat, they reached the first of the huge washouts.
“The road just completely sank into the river,” Conant told me. “There was probably like a 30-yard chunk of road; it’s just gone. If you were driving and you didn’t see it, you would have driven right off into the river.”
And it only got worse from there. Nearing Mono Debris Dam and the campground there, he spotted one of the two outhouses but not the other.
Exploring a bit downstream toward what is known as the Mono Jungle, they caught sight of it, completely buried in mud with the exception of the rooftop.
Though a more popular access point into the backcountry for those who live in the Santa Maria and Orcutt areas, Colson Canyon was damaged so severely that one of the forest’s dozer operators called it the worst damage he’s ever seen in his Forest Service career.
This past Saturday, I met with some of the residents who live in the lower part of the canyon and after walked the upper part with Paul Antolini, who operates a rock quarry near the top of the canyon where the road drops down into La Brea Canyon.
In the immediate aftermath of the last of the storms, all of the canyon residents were trapped in their homes until a rough dozer cut could be established.
Standing around a wood fire at one of the houses, they described what it was like watching the water rise till it flooded the road and closed off escape.
Their stories are for another day.
Afterward, Paul led me up the canyon in his 4×4 to another of the residences known as the Blue Horse Ranch, where it was impossible drive any farther.
From there, the horror began. There are hundreds and hundreds of yards of complete road destruction where the creek had jumped its banks and cut a 10- to 12-foot-deep gully down the middle of the road large enough to fit a bus.
In other areas where the canyon is even narrower, the road and creekbed have become one. The damage continues on, with a few short sections where the road was high enough from the creekbed to escape damage followed by more of the gullying.
Fixing the damage seems almost impossible to imagine, yet it will need to be fixed. Colson is a critical access point for fire protection, and without it, the Colson residents and others along Tepusquet Canyon could be vulnerable should a wildfire occur here.
Though it may appear the damage has not been as extensive to South Coast front-country trails as in other parts of Santa Barbara County, that is definitely not the case.
In the lower parts of many of the trails where the grades are not as steep and the canyons not so narrow, there are reports that the damage isn’t that bad.
My own surveys deeper into several of the canyons tell a different story.
San Ysidro Canyon is an example of this. Until you reach what is known as the Pipe Rails, the trail appears to be in good condition.
But just before the steps is the first of three major and extremely dangerous sections, including a washout with a 20-foot drop directly down into the creek bottom, a rocky slide where the pipe section begins, and an even worse slide closer to the San Ysidro Falls.
Similar washouts and dangerous crossings can be expected in Romero, Cold Springs, Tunnel and other front-country trails where the canyons are in deep gorges with almost vertical slopes on either side.
Look for more information in Noozhawk regarding the front-country trails damage and outlook in the next few weeks.