With a major storm bearing down on Santa Barbara County, Paradise Road was closed Saturday at the Santa Ynez River. Forecasters were calling for as much as 6 inches of rain in some locations on Sunday. (Urban HIkers / Noozhawk photo)
  • With a major storm bearing down on Santa Barbara County, Paradise Road was closed Saturday at the Santa Ynez River. Forecasters were calling for as much as 6 inches of rain in some locations on Sunday.
  • Big surf has brought out big crowds to local surf spots, including the mouth of the Santa Barbara Harbor at the breakwater.
  • Lake Cachuma has risen 1.7 feet in the last couple of days, and could rise even farther with the coming storm.
  • The boat docks at Lake Cachuma may get much closer if a major storm headed for the region dumps as much rain as expected.

It looks like the third time may be the charm — and the curse — weather-wise for Santa Barbara County.

The last in a trio of winter storms is scheduled to plow through the Central Coast late Saturday and Sunday, and forecasters are warning it will be the fiercest weather system locally in several years.

With the ground already saturated from two other storms that have soaked the region over the past few days, that’s good news when it comes to refilling depleted local reservoirs.

But the bad news is the expected heavy rains — as much as 6 inches in some areas — are likely to lead to rock and mud slides and flooding, especially near areas scorched by last year’s wildfires.

That potential was on vivid display Friday, when a flash flood heavily damaged the El Capitan Canyon camping resort west of Goleta — destroying five cabins, severely damaging many others and wrecking nearly two dozen vehicles.

Amazingly, no one was injured although more than 20 people had to be rescued when they became trapped by high water, mud and debris.

El Capitan Canyon is within the watershed that was charred by last summer’s Sherpa Fire. Other burn areas of concern are the Rey Fire in the upper Santa Ynez River watershed and the Canyon Fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base.

An evacuation warning was issued by the Sheriff's Department Saturday night for areas burned in the Sherpa Fire, including El Capitan Canyon, El Capitan Ranch, El Capitan State Beach, Refugio State Beach, Refugio Canyon, Canada Venadito Canyon, del Coral, and Las Flores Canyon.

The warning is in place for Sunday beginning at 4 a.m.

Sunday’s storm is expected to begin with light rain at about 10 p.m. Saturday and continuing overnight, according to Carol Smith, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

But that precipitation will be just a prelude to the main event.

Beginning at about 4 a.m. and continuing until late morning, moderate to heavy rainfall is expected across the county, Smith told Noozhawk.

“It’s going to be one of the strongest storms we’ve had in several years,” she said.

Rainfall totals of 2 to 4 inches are expected along the coast and in inland valleys, with 3 to 6 inches in the mountains, Smith said.

As of 9 a.m. Sunday, most areas were receiving only moderate rainfall, with 12-hour totals between half and inch and an inch.

Utility lines were reported down in several locations, along with minor flooding.

What gives this storm the potential to be a gully-washer is the combination of an abundance of sub-tropical moisture, strong southerly winds, and the expected relatively slow speed of the weather front.

The South Coast and the Santa Ynez Mountains are likely to be hardest hit, Smith said, due to the direction of the winds accompanying the storm and the orographic effects of the moist air being pushed up the mountains.

Rainfall rates of 1 inch to 1½ inches per hour will be possible during the peak of the storm, Smith said, prompting the weather service to issue a flash flood watch from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. Sunday.

Once the weather system moves east, there will be a continuing chance of rain Sunday night and Monday, Smith said, with scattered thunderstorms likely.

Sunny skies are expected to return Tuesday and continue through the end of the week.

The impact of all that rain, if it comes, would be significant for local water supplies.

“We’re really looking at getting some serious water,” said Tom Fayram, deputy director for water resources at the county Public Works Department.

Already, Lake Cachuma and Gibraltar Reservoir have received runoff and are rising, Fayram said, and Sunday’s storm should put more water into the lakes.

As of Saturday evening, Cachuma had risen 1.7 feet and gained almost 1,300 acre-feet of water, putting it at 10 percent of capacity.

Gibraltar had risen more than 8 feet and gained more than 1,000 acre-feet, putting it at 35.4 percent of capacity.

Some observers were speculating that if Sunday’s storm delivers as expected, Gibraltar could fill and spill by Monday. That would double the watershed feeding into Cachuma, and improve its prospects considerably.

“With that rain that we got and the amount they are forecasting, it’s a double-edged sword,” Fayram noted.

The downside of all that runoff is the very real potential for flooding and other problems.

“The danger from creek flooding certainly is heightened,” he added.

County Public Works crews were out in force Saturday, pulling debris out of streams, cleaning culverts and doing what they could to prepare for the oncoming deluge.

At El Capitan Canyon, crews worked throughout the day with heavy equipment to clear the stream of the wrecked cabins and vehicles, trying to open a path for the next onslaught of runoff.

Sunday’s storm will also bring high surf to many locations, especially north of Point Conception, and gusty winds. On Saturday, many local surf sports were crowded, including the breakwater at the Santa Barbara Harbor, which had some spectacular breakers.

Along with the rain, a high wind warning will be in effect from 4 a.m. until 7 p.m. Sunday. Winds of 20-25 mph are expected along the coast, with gusts to 35 mph possible.

Northern Santa Barbara County may see even higher winds, and some mountain areas could get gusts as high as 60 mph, Smith said.

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Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at tbolton@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Tom Bolton, Noozhawk Executive Editor

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at tbolton@noozhawk.com.