The story comes from KCLU’s podcast The One Oh One. You can listen to the full episode here.
In the early hours of a winter morning just after 3 a.m., Curtis Skene was awoken by an alarm on his phone. He assumed it was for the big storm that had been moving through the region.
“I thought, well, I know what that alarm’s for. It's for thunderstorm activity, but that shouldn't be any big deal,” said Skene.
Skene wasn’t concerned because he hadn’t been instructed to evacuate from his home in Montecito – the home he grew up in and still lived in.
But, 30 minutes later, his level of concern changed. He heard something he thought was thunder.
“A second later I thought, well, yes, but there's no lightning. So that's strange,” said Skene.
And then, in the dark of night a bright orange light suddenly illuminated the sky. He looked out his window and…
“I saw my car start to float by my window,” said Skene.
He suddenly understood what was happening.
A massive debris flow with flood waters filled with mud, boulders, trees and more had made its way out the steep Santa Ynez mountain range above Montecito and was hurtling downhill, like an out of control train, destroying anything in its way.
“I jumped out of bed, you know, as quickly as I could, landed on the ground. As soon as I landed on the ground, the whole side of the bedroom ripped open,” said Skene. “I was just moving as quickly as I could to the next room and then into the kitchen. And when I got into the kitchen, it was pouring in the kitchen window.”
As he tried to escape his collapsing home, Skene heard what sounded like firecrackers going off outside – that’s what it sounds like when trees are snapped effortlessly by debris flows.
As he got to his front door he realized it was already blocked by mud.
“So I managed to get into the dining room. There was another door there which I broke open and got into the back of the house. And, you know, it's hard to say, but thank goodness there was a bright orange light that morning because I think it must have saved lives,” said Skene.
That bright light, he later learned, was from an exploded gas main that had been damaged by the debris flow.
As Skene looked out his back door, the scene was surreal.
“I just remember these giant palm trees. I don't know how long they were – 50, 60 feet or more, just going by the house like they were just toothpicks, one after another after another,” he said.
The mud and debris was making its way through his house, getting closer and closer.
“It appeared that was all coming toward me. And I thought that, you know, I'd be engulfed in it pretty quickly,” said Skene.
Looking out into his backyard he spotted a tree still standing.
“I moved over under this olive tree. And I remember thinking to myself, literally thinking to myself, ‘Are you kidding? God, you want me to climb this olive tree?’ And I started to climb the olive tree,” said Skene.
Finding safety in that tree, his life was spared.
Could it happen again?
That January 9 debris flow – known as 1/9 - damaged hundreds of homes and killed 23 people. One of the victims was never found. Mud 15 feet deep carpeted Skene’s neighborhood and boulders the size of houses littered the yards. Today, more than five years on Skene remembers the lunar landscape he saw the morning after…
“So when the sun came up, it was pretty eerie. I remember the first thing that I saw was four or five crows sitting on a telephone wire, and I thought, well, life goes on,” said Skene.
Next, you’re going to hear me say ‘debris flows’ a lot. Here’s a definition: they’re very thick flows with mud – almost like concrete – and other debris like trees and boulders in them.
They are different from mudflows which are more water saturated but with the same sand and debris in it.
With less and less debris present, you get floods.
So, could what happened that night to Curtis Skene and his community happen again? Everyone I’ve spoken to for this episode – all people who know a lot about debris flows in the region – say yes, and it's just a matter of when and where.
And the reason for that ‘yes’ is because Southern Santa Barbara County (and not just the Montecito area) is particularly susceptible to these kinds of natural disasters.
And it all comes down to a very specific recipe that this region has all the potential ingredients for. That recipe in its simplest form is debris plus fire plus rain.
To better understand this lethal combination we start with a history lesson on debris.
“We're standing right next to beautiful Mission Creek, just a babbling brook right now. But when we look down in the Creek channel, we can see all these boulders from fist size to basketball size,” said Dr. Larry Gurrola.
Gurrola stands on the banks of a creek that runs through Rocky Nook Park, in Santa Barbara not far from downtown. Gurrola is a geomorphologist - he studies the evolution of land formations.
He’s really into boulders…. One nearby in particular – it’s the size of a small car.
“Right now, we're standing likely next to a 20-24 foot diameter massive boulder,” said Gurrola.
His attention turns to the sycamore and oak trees both towering overhead and lying in the creek.
“Look at these logs that are probably 30 feet long that are just in the creek channel, just dead, ready to go sycamores that are 6 to 12 inch diameter,” said Gurrola.
‘Ready to go’… meaning ready to be the destructive ingredients of a massive debris flow. This is the debris that makes this part of California so vulnerable.
“These boulders become like popcorn in the mud because of its viscosity and its density, and they just float like corks in the mud,” said Gurrola. “It's carrying these huge logs like toothpicks. And it just builds up this front or the snout of boulders and tree limbs, tree trunks, logs. And those boulders are literally just massive bullets that destroy wooden homes. I mean, concrete siding, fencing, the logs act like just huge spears that just crush homes.”
All of it moving up to 35 miles per hour.
We’ve come to Rocky Nook Park because of its history. The entire park sits on a massive debris flow that happened a thousand years ago.
“If you can imagine this, this debris flow deposit is about 10 million cubic yards. That's about five times the amount of debris flow volume of both Carpinteria and Montecito in the 2018 event. So these are very extreme events,” said Gurrola.
As Gurrola walks around the park he points to the homes on the outskirts he’d be most worried about if another debris flow event were to come through this area. One home sits in what looks like an old river basin.
“You look at this and say, I mean myself I'd say, ‘Wow, this beautiful area to live’. But it does come with its hazards as well. Fire hazard. But the debris flow hazard equally because the next debris flow is likely to occupy these lower drainages,” said Gurrola. “You live here, you really need to be paying attention to that because you're sitting on debris flows. Nothing's going to stop that process from occurring again.
And Rocky Nook Park’s landscape isn’t unique in this region.
We make our way further upstream – into the canyon and mountains above the Santa Barbara downtown area. Boulders are scattered everywhere.
Next stop is Skofield Park. Steep slopes rise up around the park and like the previous location, there are a lot of ingredients that could make up a debris flow.
“The one striking thing that's really noticeable to me is the average sized boulder has become much, much larger than at Rocky Nook Park. I'd say on average, we're probably looking at about 8 to 10 foot diameter boulder,” said Gurrola.
Gurrola points to one particular boulder.
“With this massive, massive boulder that's probably pushing 30 foot diameter in front of us. And these are beyond bullets. These are bombs, boulder bombs that are being discharged from Rattlesnake Canyon,” said Gurrola.
Gurrola has done a historic study of the major debris flows that have occurred in this region.
“In the last 200 years, we've had four additional large magnitude debris flow events that are actually much larger than the 1/9 2018 event,” he said.
In his study, Gurrola has documented significant debris flows in 1825, 1861, 1914 and 1995.
“And so we're looking about a recurrence interval of about 40 years for these massive debris flow events,” said Gurrola.
The two parks we visited paint a picture of why Southern Santa Barbara County is so susceptible to massive debris flows.
The sandstone and shale rock that make up the Santa Ynez mountain range, that cradles the entire region, are easily erodible making up the boulders and mud of debris flows.
The canyons are very steep and so rain washes down the slopes at great speed. Imagine a gigantic boulder-strewn slip and slide.
And as a debris flow makes its way out of the steep canyons at great speeds with all the debris it’s collected along the way, it gets pushed out onto alluvial fans – just like the name suggests these are flat, fan-like plains. Much of downtown Santa Barbara and Montecito are built on alluvial fans. So that means once a debris flow leaves the mountains it can go in any direction. You don’t need to live next to a creek to be in danger.
“Most people think, ‘Oh, I'm 500 feet away from a creek. I'm a thousand feet away from the creek’. Well, these debris flows in our recent past have flowed up to half a mile away from the creek,” said Gurrola.
But usually, even with heavy rains, vegetation on the hillsides around us play an important role in preventing debris flows.
“But for the most part, when we're in vegetative conditions, that slip and slide is occurring at a much slower process because we're vegetated. We've got leaf litter on the ground, broken branches, fallen trees, and that really slows down the water as it runs off these drainages,” said Gurrola.
In these conditions, when vegetation is abundant, runoff mostly stays in creek channels and you’ll see rushing rivers or a little flooding or mudflows but not havoc-causing debris flows.
And this is where our next important ingredient in our recipe comes in – fire.
Fires burn away the ground vegetation that helped slow runoff.
“Water runs off much faster, much more readily, because there's really no nothing blocking it,” said Gurrola.
To add to that slip and slide analogy, the slopes become baked and hydrophobic meaning they repel the water.
And because fires are now more often burning hotter, longer and larger areas, these conditions can persist for years as it can take a long time for vegetation to recover. Meaning more risk.
“Everyone in the scientific community, I think for the most part, is thinking these conditions: wildfire followed by debris flows, is going to become worse and more frequent,” said Gurrola.
Drought can also contribute to these kinds of conditions.
The final ingredient in the debris flow recipe is rain.
“Ok so now we're stepping out into our operations area here at the National Weather Service in Oxnard,” said Jayme Laber. The Senior Service Hydrologist for the National Weather Service which covers Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
It’s a calm day when I visit, but if a big storm with the potential to create flooding or even a debris flow was heading our way…
“This room will generally be filled with nine or ten people out here in this operations area,” explained Laber. “Everyone's focused on different aspects of the storm. We'll be looking at the radar. We'll be looking at data for the rivers, how much flows in the rivers, how much rainfall is falling out, the rain gauges.”
With this information, the National Weather Service sends out warnings about potential flooding, and mudflows, as well as debris flows around burned areas.
For debris flows specifically they are looking out for big winter storms that fall with high intensity and in a short amount of time.
They use thresholds – if a certain amount of rain falls in a certain amount of time they know there is a potential for a debris flow.
“Our thresholds generally are about half an inch in an hour. We're talking about like 2/10 of an inch in 15 minutes. So we're not talking about a lot of rainfall,” said Laber.
But remember the key part to our recipe – fire. Burned areas do come into the equation for the National Weather Service.
“You're going to get different answers for each burn area. It's not a rainfall rate that we can apply uniformly across every burn area,” said Laber. “Some of those areas might be more vulnerable than others based upon how intense the fire burned or how steep the slopes are.”
The information from the National Weather Service helps local authorities make weather decisions like if a neighborhood should be evacuated.
So that’s our recipe – debris plus fire plus rain. We need all those ingredients for a debris flow.
The significant storms we had early this year didn’t produce debris flows. We had the debris, we had the rain, but we didn’t have the fire or burned areas. What we saw was debris laden flooding – which is when there is a lot of water with some debris in it.
Forecast for the season
So when could a massive debris flow happen next?
We’re moving into what is historically the wettest part of the rainfall season – and this season could produce above normal rainfall – that’s what’s predicted with the presence of a strong El Nino phase (when sea surface temperatures are warmer than normal).
So again we have the debris, we have the potential rain but do we have the fire and burned areas?
“In general we at the Weather Service, we will monitor burn areas for two to three years. As a part of our debris flow early warning system,” said Laber.
If there’s a drought they monitor these areas for longer.
“We have had a couple of really small fires within our four county area, but nothing of major significance yet,” said Laber.
So the concern is low right now. But Laber cautions that the fire season is in full swing. A blaze could ignite at any moment – remember the Thomas Fire was still literally smoldering when the rainstorm moved in and caused the deadly 2018 Montecito debris flow.
What should you do?
So what can you do?
Well put simply – evacuate when told to. The authorities will often make these decisions before storms move in. Like Curtis Skene’s story illustrated, you can’t outrun a debris flow and there really isn’t anything you can do to insulate your home against the spears, bullets and bombs.
There are things in place that aim to lessen the impact of debris flows. Initiatives like debris nets which collect the boulders and trees while they’re still in the canyon. There’s also debris basins.
These are huge man made depressions in the ground – they almost look like empty lake beds. They work by catching the sediment, boulders and trees from debris flows but let the water drain out. Almost like a sieve.
There are debris basins on many of the significant watersheds and creeks in Southern Santa Barbara County, but not all. The county is looking into creating additional debris basins but it’s tricky work. A place where they’d like to build one could be a neighborhood full of homes with owners unwilling to move.
Healing from a natural disaster
One of the newer debris basins is close to where Curtis Skene’s home once stood. As he stands surveying the Randall Road basin he admits what happened to him in 2018 changed him.
“I decided when I got out of my house that morning that, you know, I thought to myself, well, there's got to be something I can do,” said Skene.
He wasn’t sure what… or even how to go about it.
“I am not a guy who reads my local newspaper. I'm not a guy who watches my local television station. I didn't know who my supervisors were and I didn't frankly know what my supervisors did,” said Skene.
But he did know his neighbors and many of them told him they wouldn’t be rebuilding.
So he formed a non-profit called Partners in Community Renewal. He got well acquainted with local officials and what they did. And together they approached those neighbors to see if they would sell their land for a debris basin.
“And so I spoke to them over the course of many months. They individually said, ‘Yes, we'd be willing to consider’ and this basin never would have happened if those neighbors hadn't been willing to consider giving up their properties, which they did,” said Skene.
The project helped Skene recover from the disaster.
“This was obviously hugely rewarding for me personally and for all of the people who supported our nonprofit and our community. I think that the truth is that, you know, this was a way that I expressed healing,” said Skene.
So the debris basin is built but Skene’s home is not.
“Everybody has to make a personal decision about these things,” said Skene. “Some neighbors that were here that perhaps were not as attached to the neighborhood as I am made the decision to leave. But this was a family home and so I’ve decided to rebuild”.
But it’ll take time.
“So it's certainly going to be another four or five years before we finish rebuilding. And at the end of the day, that's pretty much ten years out of your life,” said Skene.
The house will have to be raised as a preventative measure against future flooding and debris flows.
It’ll also always have reminders of what happened in January of 2018… the neighbors that are no longer there… the boulders still littered across the property brought down from the mountains… and the olive tree that helped save Curtis Skene’s life that day.
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