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Santa Barbara County nature preserve to remain closed indefinitely in wake of Alisal wildfire

KCLU News Photo
October's Alisal wildfire charred about 95% of the land in the Arroyo Hondo Preserve, on the Gaviota coastline.

Blaze charred 95% of Arroyo Hondo Preserve. Now, debris flows from storms pose a new threat.

We’re headed up a steep, rugged canyon dirt road on the Gaviota Coast. As the four wheel drive vehicle winds its way up a canyon road, we can see the devastation caused by October’s Alisal wildfire to the Arroyo Hondo Preserve.

Aldo Lopez is a Lands Program Coordinator with The Land Trust For Santa Barbara County, which owns the more than 780 acre nature preserve.

As he drives the vehicle up the road, he talks about his reaction seeing the burn area for the first time.

"Just the magnitude of everything which burned was just shocking," said Lopez.

The October 11 fire burned 95% of the preserve, which features everything from chaparral to oak woodland habitats.

We drive up to an overlook, which gives us a panoramic view of the preserve. We are surrounded by charred mountain slopes.

John Warner is the Preserve’s Manager. He actually lives on the preserve, in a historic 1800s house near the base of the canyon. While the fire tore through the landscape, firefighters were able to protect the ranch house, a barn, and even some of the signs and displays at the preserve.

"At first I had a feeling of great sadness," said Warner. "It kind of a spooky feeling," he said.

But, the big concern now is the potential for debris flows. A series of side canyons feed into Arroyo Hondo Creek, which could mean big problems if there’s heavy rain.

Warner says the storm a few weeks ago dropped about an inch and a half of rain, but he says it moved boulders the size of VW cars.

The potential for issues means the Arroyo Hondo Preserve is closed to the public indefinitely.

Meredith Hendricks is Executive Director for the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. She says while the fire was destructive, it’s also a part of the region’s natural cycle. The storm which happened after the nearly 17,000 acre fire has already led to some new growth popping out across the charred terrain.

As we head back down the canyon, Land Trust officials tell us they are using information from a team of brush fire burn experts to develop management, and reopening plans for the charred landscape. There’s also another concern.

Land Trust Conservation Director Bruce Reitherman walks us down a trail along Arroyo Hondo Creek, to where it runs under Highway 101.

The tunnel is huge, maybe 20 feet wide, and around 200 feet long. But, the concern is making sure that a major storm doesn’t send a tidal wave debris down the canyon, plugging the tunnel and flooding the area.

KCLU News Photo
The Alisal Fire charred rugged canyons which make up much of the Arroyo Hondo Preserve, creating a major risk for debris flows during significant storms.

Caltrans crews are keeping a close eye on the creek during storm periods, to insure they can move quickly to remove debris at the mouth of the tunnel if necessary.

The Land Trust is hoping to raise $60,000 between now and the end of the month to buy a tractor, and a four wheel drive vehicle which will allow them to repair trails and roads to help reopen the nature preserve.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.