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Racing nature: California National Guard clears huge Montecito debris basin filled by massive storm

Lance Orozco
This is what the Randall Road debris basin in Montecito looked like on January 13, as California National Guard units begin removing an estimated 12,000 cubic feet of debris from the basin. They worked around the clock for 11 days to clear the basin, wrapping up the project on Monday.

The concern was clearing a key basin which protects much of the community in time to handle additional storms.

A California National Guard team is preparing to load a small bulldozer onto a flatbed truck. It’s been a busy week and a half for the team. It was a race against the clock. The concern was clearing a massive debris basin which protects much of Montecito in time to handle additional storms which might hit region.

On January 9 and 10, the massive storm which hit the Tri-Counties filled the Randall Road debris basin. It’s a 90,000 square foot project designed to protect a huge chunk of Montecito from debris flows. It did its job. But, it was also full, and another storm could create another disaster like the one in 2018 which killed 23 people.

The National Guard team not only cleared it, but did it in less than two weeks.

"By clearing out this basin, making it approximately empty again, is protecting the community, and that network of roads below," said Walter Rubalcava, the Director of the Santa Barbara County Flood Control District.

He said the county didn't have the resources to do the job quickly. "We are beyond grateful," Rubalcava added.

Five years ago, San Ysidro Creek became jammed with giant boulders and logs. The January 9, 2018 debris flow tore through Montecito, killing 23 people, and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes. San Ysidro Creek created one of the most destructive debris flows, leading to many of the deaths.

Curtis Skene barely made it out alive, and lost his home. But, he came up with the idea of building a debris basin just north of Highway 192, and east of Randall Road to protect the downstream area from future flooding.

"It took a lot of work...but to get this actually done...I am so grateful," said Skene.

Skene says it came at a big price. Seven homeowners elected not to rebuild, to make room for the eight acre debris basin.

"They were partners in this all the way." said Skene. "Without them, we would have no basin."

The idea behind a debris basin is to build barriers to keep boulders, logs, and other debris out of creeks, so the water keeps moving, and doesn’t overflow the creek bed.

The nearly $20 million dollar project did its job January 9, holding back the debris. But, when Santa Barbara County officials went to inspect it, they realized they had a problem. It was full.

They reached out to the state for help. The State Office Of Emergency Services acted quickly. Two days later, more than 110 members of the Army National Guard were on their way from Northern California to help. They brought a convoy of earth movers and dump trucks.

Captain Donald Lipscomb oversaw the project.

"When we first got here, we thought it would be tough. We thought the rocks might be too big, and that the bulldozers might get stuck in the saturated soil," said Lipscomb.

But, he said once they actually started the around the clock operation, they knew they could get it done.

The unit’s Chad Huchison said some members of the team lost their homes in the big Northern California wildfires near Chico a few years ago, so it really hit home for them to be able to help protect another threatened community.

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams says thanks to the debris basins, and other projects, Montecito has fared well so far this winter.

He said work on the debris basins, and nets added to snag rocks on some of the community's waterways have added an incredible degree of protection in a five year period.

While the convoy of bulldozers and dump trucks is now headed back to Northern California, the question is where it will be back to Santa Barbara County again, because of another big storm.

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.