This is not the editorial I’d hoped to write for this issue of the magazine—or for any issue, for that matter. But the events of the past weeks here have made it difficult to write about anything else.
The offices of Forester Media, which publishes Erosion Control, are in Santa Barbara, CA, just a few miles down the road from Montecito. If you weren’t familiar with Montecito before January, you likely are now. It’s a small community of mostly upscale homes nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains. And that, it turns out, is the problem.
The change in elevation between the mountains and the ocean is as much as 3,000 feet within just a few miles. In December and early January, the Thomas Fire—the largest on record in California—burned more than 282,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, including most of the vegetated area in the hills above Montecito. Even before the fire was completely contained, heavy rains fell; according to the National Weather Service, in a single five-minute period around 3:30 a.m. on January 9, Montecito and the neighboring communities of Summerland and Carpinteria received more than half an inch of rain.
For those in the erosion control field who are used to dealing with such situations, what happened next isn’t surprising. But many others—including, unfortunately, many residents of the area who ignored evacuation warnings—had no idea what to expect, or at least had no inkling of how bad things could get.
Before January 9, there were roughly 3,000 single-family homes in the community. Nearly 100 of those were destroyed in the mudslides early in the morning of January 9, and hundreds more were damaged. As I write this, 20 people are known to have died and several more are still missing.
The reluctance to evacuate is understandable; many of the people in Montecito and surrounding areas—including some who work here at Forester—had already had to leave their homes because of the fires and had only recently been able to return. Compared to fire, a little rain must have seemed almost inconsequential.
We run articles in the magazine every year on post-fire measures to prevent erosion and flooding; both are all too common, especially in many Western states, and for various reasons—drought, overzealous fire suppression that allows excess undergrowth to reach dangerous levels, new development that moves homes and infrastructure ever closer to wilderness areas—the damage they cause seems to be getting worse. Many of the measures we’ve covered in past articles, such as applying mulch or seed to burned areas to aid revegetation, placing physical barriers to stop sedimentation, and creating sediment ponds to capture some of the moving water, dirt, and debris, would have helped in this case had there been time to implement them. But the intensity of the rain and the nature of the terrain almost ensured there would be damage. The question now is what we can learn from this incident, both to help in similar situations elsewhere, and to help this community—and others—going forward. It will take years for the vegetation above Montecito to come back to anything close to its pre-fire level, and the people, businesses, farms, and infrastructure down below will remain at risk until it does.
As we planned this issue, while the Thomas Fire was still burning but before the mudslides occurred, our publisher Dan Waldman, who himself was for a time evacuated from his home because of the fire, suggested the idea for the cover. We didn’t know then that the magnitude of what would happen next could be characterized as a significant geologic event. As we go to press, Highway 101—the main artery between here and Los Angeles—is still closed, portions of it covered with mud, debris, and abandoned vehicles and its structural integrity in question. Emergency permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies are allowing up to 300,000 cubic yards of sediment removed from roads and channels to be placed on local beaches. We’ll publish updates in the magazine or online.