The Montecito Union School gymnasium was packed for a watershed recovery discussion in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire and the deadly Jan. 9 flash flooding and debris flows. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Eight months after the Jan. 9 flash flooding and debris flows ripped through Montecito, killing 23 people, a panel of science experts convened Monday night to talk about the devastating impact and whether more danger looms in the coming months.

“The truth is we don’t know,” acknowledged Ed Keller, a professor of environmental geology at UC Santa Barbara. “It is in the realm of the great geomorphologic god in the sky.”

Keller joined Tom Fayram, director of the Santa Barbara County Flood Control District, and Natasha Lohmus, an environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, for the talk about watershed recovery. The discussion at Montecito Union School was moderated by Geoff Green, president and CEO of the Foundation for Santa Barbara City College.

Keller said he is managing a group of students that is trying to understand the frequency of historical debris flows in the area, to get a better idea of how often to expect one the size of the Jan. 9 disaster.

Montecito is built on top of debris flows, he said, and many have occurred in the region over time.

Keller noted that the Rocky Nook debris flow, in Mission Canyon above the Santa Barbara Mission, happened a thousand years ago and was probably five-to-10 times as big as Montecito’s. There hasn’t been a reoccurrence in Mission Canyon in 200 years, he said.

Rattlesnake Creek, near Santa Barbara’s Skofield Park, has had about four or five debris flows over the past 125,000 years, Keller said.

Keller had a warning for Montecito residents who receive an evacuation notice.

“If it rains, we evacuate; that is what you have to do because we don’t know yet,” he said of the future danger.

Keller also suggested implementing a warning siren system to alert people to a potential debris flow or mudslide, and noted that wildfire remains a threat to Montecito.

The abundance of vegetation in Montecito is also a problem, “in particular the eucalyptus trees, which are virtual bombs,” he noted, referring to their flammability.

The Jan. 9 debris flows followed the Thomas Fire, which ignited near Santa Paula the night of Dec. 4 and burned more than 440 square miles in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, including the mountains above Montecito.

Natasha Lohmus

Natasha Lohmus, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, explains opportunities to reintroduce native vegetation along Montecito’s creeks. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

In the early morning hours of Jan. 9, intense rainfall on the fire-denuded mountainside sent tons of boulders, mud and debris roaring downhill. The flash flooding destroyed hundreds of homes, multiple bridges and blocked Highway 101 for almost two weeks.

Lohmus said the debris flows killed countless wild animals and possibly endangered steelhead trout that can live in local creeks.

She criticized proposals to install steel wire ring nets in canyons and creeks above Montecito in an attempt to catch debris in future flows, saying they would likely be a barrier to fish passage and serve as a trap to coyotes and bobcats.

“It will affect wildlife,” Lohmus said. “I kind of visualize them being gill nets for wildlife.”

Keller agreed.

“I am not writing them off yet but I don’t know enough about them,” he said of the nets, which are widely used to protect infrastructure like highways, railroads and buildings in avalanche- and rockslide-prone terrain.

“They are not a quick and dirty solution to anything. Generally, we do anyting to the creek, we mess the creek up.”

Lohmus said the Montecito debris flows gutted so much of the vegetation in local creeks that there is an opportunity to plant native, noninvasive plants to stablize the creek banks and recreate a more natural environment.

“We can try to make a natural system that was here long before,” she said.

Fayram spoke briefly about debris removal and said in future events, crews must be able to haul the sediment to the ocean.

He made the same point at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting when the county approved hauling sediment from the Carpinteria Salt Marsh to a temporary site off Cathedral Oaks Road near Highway 154.

Tens of thousands of truck loads of debris were hauled to Buellton, Ventura County and other sites after the Montecito disaster, and some was dumped onto local beaches.

“Are we going to haul sediment to Fillmore every time?” Fayram asked. “We have to be smarter and we have to come together. No one is going to like every single answer.”

He noted that people who lost their homes in the debris flows have a legal right to rebuild — and the county has approved a process for them to do so.

The so-called like-for-like rebuilding ordinance does require, in some cases, new elevation standards and construction methods, he said.

“We have seen what happens to houses made by two by fours when they meet rocks,” Fayram said.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at