Major damage to Montecito and Carpinteria neighborhoods after mudslide, flooding event

SBFLM Staff Report

Parts of Montecito, one of the most affluent communities in California, have been reduced to piles of rocks, mud and debris after torrential rain the night of Jan. 9 swept down slopes recently denuded by the Thomas Fire.

In an unprecedented event, more than half an inch of rain fell in five minutes, and much more in the following hour, which triggered flooding, debris flows and mudslides that residents described as an earthquake.

When daylight came, massive boulders were everywhere while buildings, vehicles and other property had been swept away.

“I was there when it all stared and never slept after that. I attempted to get my car, but it was hanging off a bridge,” said Kevin Christy of Montecito.

Christy, who was evacuated, said the scariest part was hearing the noises and seeing the volume of water. (Watch the video of our interview of Christy HERE)

More than 17 people have been killed and even more have been reported missing since the slide thundered down the mountain, destroying more than 100 homes and structures, damaging another 300 and ending up on the beaches in some areas.

Hot Springs Road/Olive Mill Road appeared to be the epicenter of the disaster, as mud, water, boulders and debris surged out of Cold Spring and Hot Springs canyons above Montecito, which were denuded by the giant Thomas Fire. The deadly slurry from Montecito Creek carved a course of destruction down nearly to the ocean.

Crews were working to evacuate people by helicopter from Romero Canyon, where about 300 people were trapped, and from the Birnam Wood Golf Club, a collection point for people who could not otherwise get out of the area, Montecito Fire Protection District Deputy Chief Kevin Taylor said.

Highway 101 through Montecito was covered in several feet of mud and debris including abandoned vehicles, a boat, water tanks, and was expected to remain shut down until Monday, Jan. 15. Updates to road conditions will be posted on our website and social media pages. 

The hundreds of residents trapped in the Romero Canyon area have been taken out safely, officials said at a press conference on Wednesday, Jan. 9.

Dozens of people have been treated at Santa Barbara and Goleta Cottage Hospital from storm related injuries.

Normally vegetation absorbs rainfall that reduces the amount of runoff, however in large scale wildfires it alters the terrain. It also creates conditions for flash flooding which is most severe after a wildfire as debris and ash can form mudflows, according to the National Flood Insurance Program.

The Thomas Fire has burned a significant portion of the front side above Carpinteria and Montecito, as well as the watershed behind Jameson and Gibraltar Reservoirs, according to Santa Barbara Public Works Director Tom Fayram.

Fayram added homeowners need to have evacuations routes or shelter in place plans as well as ensuring their properties are best prepared as this is only the first storm of the season, and wet weather is predicted in the coming weeks.

Much of the damage and many of the casualties occurred in areas that were under evacuation warnings rather than mandatory evacuation orders.

Noozhawk Executive Editor Tom Bolton contributed to this story.

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