Making Montecito Safer, Part 1
Six of seven homes on Randall Road along San Ysidro Creek were destroyed when a catastrophic debris flow engulfed entire neighborhoods on Jan. 9, 2018 (Photo by the Ventura County Sheriff's Air Unit)
By Melinda Burns
In the early morning of Jan. 9, 2018, seven homes were destroyed and two people died on Randall Road in Montecito as a raging torrent of mud and boulders jumped the banks of San Ysidro Creek.
It was one of the deadliest places to be in Montecito that day. A catastrophic debris flow, triggered by extreme rainfall on the burned mountainside, descended on the sleeping community below, damaging more than 200 homes and killing 23 people. Two of the victims lived just below Randall on East Valley Road and Glen Oaks Drive.
Now, the county is designing a debris basin on eight acres at the intersection of Randall and East Valley – effectively, an enormous dirt bowl to help trap the boulders and uprooted trees that can surge over the banks of San Ysidro Creek during the worst storms. It will be 10 times the size of the existing debris basin, which is located higher on the creek, near Park Lane.
“I’m really excited to be able to be a part of something this big,” Tom Fayram, deputy director of county Public Works, said after a county design workshop on Monday. “I don’t want to lose the momentum. You don’t see this very often, so you have to grab that and go forward and get it done. If I would have proposed this basin in 2017, you would have seen this room full of mad, screaming people.”
The new basin is on a fast track; environmental review is already underway. If state and federal permits can be obtained in time, construction will begin in the summer of 2021, with a finished basin by the fall of that year, county officials said.
In addition, they said, they are designing a new dam outlet for the existing basin on San Ysidro Creek so that instead of clogging the basin, fine sediment will flow downstream. On Jan. 9, 2018, the fast-flowing mud, rocks and trees overtopped this small basin by as much as 30 feet.
On Monday, county officials ticked off a list of 15 storm disasters that have battered Montecito with major debris flows or debris-laden floods since 1862. On San Ysidro Creek, a major gas line and several homes have been hit more than once.
A map by Partners in Community Renewal, a new nonprofit group in Montecito, was displayed on a big screen, highlighting the dramatic change in topography in the Randall/East Valley roads neighborhood, post-Jan. 9, 2018. In some locations, the piles of mud and rocks left behind by the debris flow were 15 feet high.
“To reach this point is huge,” Curtis Skene, the Partners co-founder and executive director, told the audience. After Skene lost his home on East Valley Lane, he approached Fayram with the concept of a debris basin on Randall and got the property owners – his neighbors – on board.
“We are going to work with the county, and we are going to see what else we can do on other creeks to mitigate the risks,” Skene said.
Below East Valley, about 95 homes along San Ysidro Creek were destroyed or damaged, and more than 200 other properties took on mud and water. According to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey, more debris was deposited along San Ysidro Creek during last year’s catastrophe than along Montecito, Oak, Romero or Buena Vista creeks.
“We don’t want another disaster to pass before we make some fundamental change to increase our resilience and our safety,” said county Supervisor Das Williams, who represents Montecito. “We are immensely committed to making a difference and not going back.”
The new basin on San Ysidro Creek is estimated to cost $20 million, a price tag that includes land acquisition. On Monday, county officials said they were optimistic that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would pick up 75 percent of the cost, leaving the county to cover 25 percent. In all, eight properties must be purchased: seven on Randall and one on East Valley. The county purchased the only home still standing on Randall for $4 million last May.
“What you’re seeing here tonight is, we have gone all-in,” said Jon Frye, county flood control engineering manager.
From the audience came a question: Would the new basin have captured all of the debris that surged over the banks of San Ysidro Creek on Jan. 9, 2018?
Not completely, Fayram replied, adding, “We still would have had a significant flow. But it certainly would have helped … All of our debris basins ‘worked’ in the debris flow.”
The new basin will be hidden from East Valley by a berm landscaped with shrubs and trees, county officials said.
“It’s going to look more like open space than a debris basin,” Fayram said. “There’s no dam, there’s no rock spillway; there’s going to be a trail going through there.”
The Ennisbrook Trail from San Leandro Lane presently ends on the south side of East Valley near Randall Road. This trail will be continued northward on what is now Randall Road. Three parking spaces for hikers will be provided.
Also, Partners in Community Renewal is talking with the Immaculate Heart Community, the Los Angeles-based owners of La Casa de Maria, a former spiritual retreat, about a possible trail easement along San Ysidro Creek, just north of Randall. La Casa lost nine buildings there on Jan. 9, 2018.
If the talks are successful, Skene said, the public will be able to hike all the way from East Valley up to the San Ysidro Trailhead on Mountain Drive. Currently, there is a gap in the trail system in this location.
Skene’s childhood home at 1709 East Valley Lane was destroyed last year in the debris flow: he barely escaped, he said, “by a foot or so.” And it was the second time around for him. During the massive debris flow of 1969, Skene said, as a boy of 14, he watched, petrified, as the mud rose three feet high along a four-foot-high wall of sandbags he had helped erect around the house.
On Jan. 9, 2018, Skene lost everything.
“You have a “Come to Jesus” moment,” he said. “You focus on how grateful you are. I said to myself in the days afterward, ‘There’s gotta be something I can do.’”
So, Skene, who had never attended a community meeting, did not follow local news, and could not have told you who his county supervisor was or what he did, became a key liaison between the county and the property owners on Randall Road. When he talks about the respect he has for Fayram and Frye, he gets emotional.
“I feel like I’ve been through a war with these guys,” Skene said. “This basin will really, really, really make a difference.”
Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara.
November 14, 2019: Making Montecito Safer: Part II