Major Prehistoric Debris Flow is Found on Montecito Creek

UCSB geologist Ed Keller says that a 15-foot-high embankment Just north of Hammond’s Meadow by the railroad tracks was part of the “penultimate event” in Montecito (Photo by Melinda Burns)

By Melinda Burns

The mud and boulders from a prehistoric debris flow, the second-to-last major flow in Montecito, have been discovered by a UCSB geologist at the Bonnymede condominiums and Hammond’s Meadow, just east of the Coral Casino.

The flow may have occurred between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago, said Ed Keller, a professor of earth science at the university. He’s calling it the “penultimate event.” It came down a channel of Montecito Creek and was likely larger on that creek than during the disaster of Jan. 9, 2018, Keller said. Of 23 people who perished on Jan. 9, 17 died along Montecito Creek.

The long interval between the two events means that the probability of another catastrophic debris flow occurring in Montecito in the next 1,000 years is very low, Keller said.

“It’s reassuring,” he said, “They’re still pretty rare events, if you consider you need a wildfire first and then an intense rainfall. But smaller debris flows could occur, and you could still get a big flash flood. If people are given a warning to evacuate, they should heed it.”

During the past three months, Keller and Chandler Adamaitis, a UCSB graduate student in geology, together with several undergraduate research assistants, have photographed hundreds of debris flow boulders that were hiding in plain sight in Santa Barbara and Montecito. In addition to the prehistoric debris flow on a channel of Montecito Creek, they found evidence of two or three on Mission Creek in Santa Barbara, and four or five in Rattlesnake Canyon, a tributary. 

As in Montecito, Keller said, the team tracked a debris flow that occurred 1,000 to 2,000 years ago in Mission Creek; it dropped a boulder field in what is now Rocky Nook Park. But Santa Barbara, unlike Montecito, has not had a catastrophic flow in recent history, Keller said.

“The system is primed for a big debris flow in the Mission Creek basin, down to Rocky Nook, Alamar Avenue and State streets, and the Oak Park area,” Keller said. “There hasn’t been one for a thousand years, and there are a lot of boulders in the creek.”

Of course, Keller said, such a flow would most likely occur in the wake of a wildfire, followed by intense rain.

Keller’s team seeks to construct a chronology of prehistoric debris flows from Montecito to San Roque Canyon to determine how often they have occurred. All of Montecito and most of Santa Barbara were built on top of such flows.

To date, the team has studied seven boulder sites at parks, creeks, apartment complexes and parking lots, taking 20 measurements on each of 20 boulders at each site. In all, they will study about 20 different locations, Keller said. Their preliminary findings were published online this spring in the journal, Geomorphology.

Boulder research, Keller said, is like going on “a giant Easter egg hunt.”

“You know they are out there, and you look for them,” he said. “Until I looked, I never appreciated the role of debris flows in our landscape. I was blind, and now I see.”

According to a team of UCSB geologists, these boulders were dropped at Rocky Nook and Oak parks during a prehistoric debris flow down Mission Creek between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago (Photo: Melinda Burns)

Boulders at Bonnymede

The Jan. 9, 2018 debris flow was the deadliest natural disaster in Santa Barbara County history; in addition to killing 23, it destroyed or damaged 470 houses and outbuildings along seven creeks in Montecito. The flow was triggered by extreme rainfall on the mountainside that had been burned bare by the Thomas Fire a few weeks earlier. During the deluge, rivers of mud and boulders were launched from the canyons into the sleeping community below, burying homes, wiping out neighborhoods and dragging cars, trees and utility poles to the sea.

Keller discovered the prehistoric debris flow in Montecito when he was investigating damage from the Jan. 9, 2018 flow near the Coral Casino. Nearby, he spotted some boulders on the lawn at Bonnymede, noting that unlike the boulders that came down on Jan. 9, these had been rounded by erosion – a sign of much older age.

The boulders at Bonnymede also had what geologists call “weathering rinds,” orange-ish crusts that build up, layer upon layer, through oxidation. These rinds form on all rock surfaces that are exposed to the air. But because the rinds are scraped away during debris flows, the new rinds that form on boulders after they have been through a flow can reveal the approximate age of the flow itself.

The thicker the rinds, the older the flow, Keller said; on the Bonnymede boulders, they are about one-eighth of an inch thick, denoting a relatively young geologic age.

Just east of Bonnymede, Keller found more evidence of the prehistoric flow in the exposed face of the sea cliff at Hammond’s Meadow, next to a popular surfing beach. The meadow sits atop a seven-foot-high conglomeration of mud and rocks that was uplifted during a major earthquake. Each of the rocks in the cliff face is encased in mud. 

“Most people would walk right by it, but this is the penultimate event,” Keller said. “It goes all the way to the trailhead at Hot Springs Creek.”

Just north of Hammond’s, Keller found an exposed cliff 15 feet high along the railroad tracks in Montecito – more evidence of the same prehistoric flow.

Hammond’s Meadow is preserved by the county as a Chumash heritage site. In the prehistoric past, a Native-American village was built on top of the debris flow; it is believed to have been occupied from 1000 to 1200, then re-occupied by the Chumash in the 1700s.

Samples of charcoal from wildfire in the top layer of the prehistoric flow at Hammond’s will be sent to a lab for radiocarbon dating, Keller said. The results will help pinpoint the date of the flow within a few decades.

This boulder with thick weathering “rinds,” or crusts, was dropped in a prehistoric debris flow that came down Rattlesnake Canyon 100,000 years ago; it is sitting at what is now the Riviera Park on Alameda Padre Serra. UCSB geologists are developing a chronology of major prehistoric debris flows from Montecito to San Roque Canyon (Photo by Melinda Burns)

Telltale rock walls

Development in the urban area makes it harder to find boulders that are sitting intact where they were dropped by debris flows, a thousand or more years ago.Many have been cut into blocks to fashion walls.

“You know you’re in debris flow country when you start seeing numerous rock walls,” Keller said. “They’re all over the place.” 

But some boulders haven’t likely moved an inch. A wall at the former St. Mary’s Seminary on Las Canoas Road was built around a boulder that was dropped by a debris flow in Rattlesnake Canyon between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago, Keller said.

At Oak Park, there’s a boulder seven feet high next to the tennis courts and one at the south entrance; both are from the same flow that dropped a field of boulders at Rocky Nook between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago, Keller said. That flow was triggered by a landslide in Rattlesnake Canyon and came down Mission Canyon; it, too, appears to have been larger than the 2018 disaster in Montecito, Keller said.

The weathering rinds on the Oak Park boulders are “dead ringers” for the boulders at Bonnymede, Keller said – a sign that the two debris flows may have occurred in roughly the same prehistoric time frame. As at Hammond’s, Keller’s team will look for charcoal in the mud at other boulder sites for radiocarbon dating.

Going further back in geologic time, Keller’s team also found evidence of an enormous debris flow that occurred about 100,000 years ago in Rattlesnake Canyon; it scattered boulders across what is now the Riviera. The boulders from this flow have weathering rinds one-half inch thick; on many of them, the rinds have started to crack, forming polygons that look like turtle shells.

Earthquakes later pushed up the ridgeline that forms the Riviera, but boulders from the 100,000-year-old flow can be found today on either side of the ridge. One of them is visible behind the historic streetcar stop at Alameda Padre Serra and Lasuen Road. On the hillside above, and in Orpet Park below, are more boulders from this prehistoric flow, with their thick weathering rinds.

“Now, I can recognize really young, intermediate age and old age boulders,” Keller said. “Isn’t that cool? The things you can learn if you look at the land, that you never thought about before.”

Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara

Melinda Burns

Written by Melinda Burns

Melinda Burns is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience covering immigration, water, science and the environment. As a community service, she offers her reports to multiple publications in Santa Barbara County, at the same time, for free.

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  1. Let’s hope his prediction of the time between these catastrophic events is correct. But the vegetation is more susceptible to fire now, and climate change should increase the rain intensities that we see, so maybe it the debris flows will happen more frequently?

  2. I don’t really see the relevance of this UCSB report. They are talking about the uniqueness of this fire, flood, slide event and being happy and secure that this only happens on a 1,000 + year cycle. Did this exact event not occur in 1969, following the 1964 Coyote fire, when 7 inches of rain fell in 12 hours and wiped out Montecito and Carpinteria? It sounds to me like the same event and has occurred on a much more frequent basis than their proposed 1,000 year cycle.
    Here is a link to recent Independent Magazine article about this:

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