The December 26 announcement that the Thomas Fire, the largest wildfire in California history, was 89 percent contained brought much-needed cheer to Santa Barbara residents. However, the comfort was short-lived. On January 9, the coastal community suffered another major setback after a storm that dumped almost five inches of rain in less than three hours caused widespread flooding and massive mudslides.
The downpour, which is not unusual during the winter months, is ordinarily not a cause for significant concern. However, Thomas, which charred more than 281,000 acres including critical vegetation that kept the hillsides stable, had made the area particularly vulnerable. Officials, worried about a potential disaster, had ordered residents close to the fire-damaged regions to evacuate before the storm. But even they were surprised at the rapid pace at which the deadly torrent of mud, water, trees, and boulders descended upon the valley.
The hardest hit is the beautiful city of Montecito. The heavy rain inundated the town’s south-facing slopes, flooding the Montecito Creek and sending down huge boulders and copious amounts of mud into residential neighborhoods. The debris destroyed over 115 single-family homes and damaged scores more. What made the situation worse is that the community most affected was far from the Thomas Fire burn zone, and, therefore, not subject to a mandatory evacuation. At the last count, 20 people, aged 3 to 89, have perished, and two remain in critical condition. Three residents, including a 2-year-old girl, remain missing.
Though officials are trying to get the over 10,000 evacuated residents back home, they fear it could take a few weeks. “There’s a lot of people out here that haven’t been able to get to their homes yet and see them,” said Todd Ferryman, superintendent of Access Limited Construction, which is helping remove boulders. “The sooner we get this open and safe for the public, the sooner we can get everybody back to their lives.”
Sections of the US 101 freeway, which connects Southern and Northern California, remain closed indefinitely due to flooding and debris. The shutdown is also adversely affecting the area’s small businesses and restaurants, which depend on local tourists during winter. California Governor Jerry Brown recognizes the plight of the affected residents, saying, “Our hearts break for the communities first ravaged by fires and now devastated by these mudslides. We will push for every available resource to help Californians recover from these tragedies.”
Meanwhile, Montecito residents are already thinking of ways to prevent similar disasters in the future. One of the options being considered is building basins to help collect debris and delay storm runoff. However, until a feasible solution is found, the citizens of the vulnerable town and surrounding areas will have to remain vigilant and evacuate to safer areas even at the slightest possibility of rain.
Resources: LAtimes.com, CNN.com, Wikipedia.org