Fire and Flood
January 10, 2018 11:19 PM   Subscribe

Montecito, CA: At least 17 people killed. Hundreds stranded. At least 100 homes destroyed. Thirty miles of highway 101 closed. The aftermath of the Southern California 2017 fire season.

The Thomas Fire [previously] began on December 4 and has burned more than 280,000 acres - the largest wildfire in California history. It is 92% contained as of January 10 . In the early morning hours of January 9, a relentless rain fell across the Southland, and caused debris flows on fire-damaged hillsides, sweeping away houses and trapping hundreds of people. Rescues and recoveries are underway.
Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins. On its way down Pine Cone Road, it plucked up cars from driveways and the street. When it crashed into the Genofiles’ house, the shattering of safety glass made terrific explosive sounds. A door burst open. Mud and boulders poured into the hall.
- Los Angeles Against the Mountains - John McPhee
posted by rtha (26 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
When Jay Leno took over the Tonight Show from Johnny Carson in the early 90s, one of his bits would be to call Carson now and then just to check in on him. I'm guessing this was during the '93 fires in Malibu, but I remember Carson's first joke on one of these calls being "Well, the mudslides are putting out the forest fires"...
posted by Lukenlogs at 11:41 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I grew up in socal and when my friend was considering a place in Malibu to buy a couple years back, my first response was "Malibu's ok if you're fine watching your house burn up and slide straight into the ocean." I'll never forget the news footage of those beautiful mansions drifting down the cliffs into the sea. Anytime you have a bad fire season in a hilly area, mudslides are the next big scary fear.

Any joking aside, though, these people have had a terrible winter and I can't believe that fire still isn't out after over a month of all this. What can you even say? All these homes were dream homes. Montecito is the dream, for so many people. I can't imagine what they've been through. It's a nightmare. I'm so sorry.
posted by potrzebie at 12:19 AM on January 11 [8 favorites]

It's a bit shocking how the combination of decent building + mud-covered road instantly makes California look like a third-world locale. I don't think I'd ever appreciated how much the visual perception of a first-world location is tied to paved roads in good repair.

Man, that's rough.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 12:48 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]

My aunt lives a few miles from here (and a sousin is down near Malibu). She is very blase about the whole thing, but I worry about them.

She works in a research center associatied with the UCLA medical center and said that they all just sneak in and steal the paper masks (that are put out for visitors who are ill) and wear wear them on their way to work. I can’t tell whether she is serious or pulling my leg.
posted by wenestvedt at 3:08 AM on January 11

I hate to be cynical, but I bet you anything that California is livable again *far* faster than Puerto Rico.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 4:02 AM on January 11 [14 favorites]

I love that John McPhee essay.I use his point about mudslides being more or less constant on a geological time scale when I teach to help students understand why events that seem very rare to us can happen over and over when you think on the order of thousands and millions of years.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:26 AM on January 11 [7 favorites]

I hate to be cynical, but I bet you anything that California is livable again *far* faster than Puerto Rico.

Despite the fire being vast, the scale of the CA disaster is *much* smaller in inhabited areas than PR - the infrastructure there is better prepared, so of course it will be livable again quicker.

.......of course the unstated assumption behind your comment is likely also true, that money and privilege go a long way to mitigate disasters.....
posted by lalochezia at 4:47 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]

My in-laws live in Santa Barbara (next to Montecito). It has been a nerve-wracking few months for the family. They recently moved from the foothills closer to the ocean, and would have been in a voluntary Thomas Fire evacuation zone had they not moved. They had some evacuees staying in their house over the Christmas holiday. I love visiting southern California, but the frequency and scale of disasters like this is really alien to this Midwesterner.
posted by TrialByMedia at 4:59 AM on January 11

My coworker's sister-in-law just bought a house in Montecito, and luckily was staying overnight with her fiancé in his apartment. She went home the next day to feed the cats and it was all gone: home, pets, all her belongings. Just a flat empty field of mud. And her neighbors' houses were gone, too, and they are still missing. Horrifying.
posted by Malla at 5:54 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]

I don't know how many times I looked at that one photo of the overpass and the mud under it before it dawned on me exactly what I was looking at. The 101 freeway. I mean, the freeway.

It doesn't help that I'm reading Ghosts of the Tsunami right now. It's like the entire last year has been one example after another of how wrong I am that I think I have a good sense of impermanence.
posted by janey47 at 5:55 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]

Growing up in Southern California (in a hilly area that never burned nor slid, while I lived there), I remember thinking how weirdly maladaptive our human expectation of permanency was. You build a dwelling on the earth with a sense that the earth abides, and it's really anybody's guess, especially in a new community, just how long that particular swath of earth will abide in that same form.

Also, I grew up thinking midwesterners were crazy, living someplace where tornadoes could happen. So.
posted by allthinky at 6:09 AM on January 11 [5 favorites]

I used to live right across the street from the Montecito Inn. These pictures and these stories just make me say holy shit over and over and over.
posted by JanetLand at 6:25 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]

The thing is this always happens. It always has. There are hundreds plus year old debris catch basins all over those hills for this very reason. Its a well know and we'll understood commonly occuring event. But developers keep pushing into areas they shouldn't build in and people keep buying the houses then saying "we didn't know". Until we start to remember more than 5 or 6 years into the past or until we get real construction regulation, and not elected boards that the development companies stack with relatives, it'll keep happening.

Say what you want about the CA coastal commission but they have some teeth.
posted by fshgrl at 8:24 AM on January 11 [10 favorites]

My brother lives in Isla Vista, so I've been getting regular bulletins (and chewing my knuckles a lot). We've both spent a lot of time in Montecito, and it's horrifying to see what's happened to it.

> But developers keep pushing into areas they shouldn't build in and people keep buying the houses then saying "we didn't know".

But even when they're told, they don't believe it or don't care. From the McPhee piece:
Dan Davis and Hadi Norouzi, L.A.C.F .C.D. engineers, went up there after the burn to tell the people what they might expect. In midsummer, it is not a simple matter to envision a winter flood if you are leaning on a boulder by a desiccated creek. “We spent a lot of time trying to prevent a disaster from occurring,” Davis said recently. “The fact that people would not believe what could happen was disappointing, actually. We held meetings. We said, ‘There’s nothing we can do for you. Telephones are going to go out. Mud will close the road. You’re abandoned. If you’re here, get to high ground.’ ” There was no debris basin, of course. This was a hamlet in the mountains, not a subdivision at the front. Conditions were elemental and pristine. “We walked people through escape routes,” he went on. “We told them the story of fire and rain. We said, ‘If heavy rain starts, you’ve got fifteen to thirty minutes to get out.’ ”

Norouzi told them they were so heavily threatened that no amount of sandbags, barricades, or deflection walls was ever going to help them. “There is nothing you can build that will protect you.” Half a year went by, and nothing stirred. Cal Drake went on making jewelry in his streamside apartment. He and his wife, Mary, shared a one-story triplex with two other couples. The Drakes, from the city, had moved to Hidden Springs two years before, in quest of a “quiet life.” Elva Lewis, wife of Amos the sheriff, went on running her roadside café. Gabe Hinterberg stayed open for business at the Hidden Springs Lodge.
posted by languagehat at 8:45 AM on January 11 [9 favorites]

A word of warning, though: don't click on the McPhee link unless you have some time to spare, because if you read the first paragraph you will read the whole thing, and it is long.
posted by languagehat at 8:47 AM on January 11 [6 favorites]

“Why does anybody live there?”

“They’re not well informed. Most folks don’t know the story of the fire-flood sequence. When it happens in the next canyon, they say, ‘Thank God it didn’t happen here.’”

Isn't that precisely why we all do the dangerous things that we do? Humans are so excellent at ascribing every tragedy to fate, especially those tragedies that are otherwise avoidable. I was unaware of how precisely well-suited to debris flows burned chaparral actually is, it's really quite astonishing.
posted by lydhre at 10:17 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]

I'm very curious how the debris basins performed during this landslide. They're our major infrastructural bulwarks against this kind of disaster, and any new information on how to keep them working well could be valuable. My guess would be that after the fire any basins that were in the path of the landslide were just overwhelmed.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:32 AM on January 11

From the McPhee piece, here is the Genofile house, buried in debris. Here it is now (ish).
posted by rtha at 11:11 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]

It's true that this is part of the Southern California lived experience. We used to say we have three seasons: Fires, Floods, Earthquakes. The most Southern California novel ever written -- Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion, has a scene in which the protagonist watches a house fall into the Tujunga Wash on a television news show, with the owner of the house complimenting the television journalists on the great job they did on the coverage.
posted by janey47 at 11:22 AM on January 11

Why does anybody live there?”

“They’re not well informed.

I dunno, why does anyone live in the Midwest? You know eventually you're going to be hit by a tornado, but people keep living in that area.

Same goes for anyone living in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Seaboard, or Northeast. People should live in SAFE locations.
posted by happyroach at 11:31 AM on January 11

Sometimes, people have to live where the opportunities are, environmental factors be damned.

I swapped out the Midwest, with it's blizzards, tornadoes, and super thunderstorms, for Seattle - and it's flooding, wildfires, dark winters, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes. But, the career, education, and social opportunities that are afforded me here in Seattle are not available in Wisconsin, so I deal. Dust masks for the smoke, sunlamp for the dark, disaster kit for the earthquakes and everything else.

And I wouldn't change it for the world.
posted by spinifex23 at 11:53 AM on January 11

Another McPhee quote:
“People often ask why we continue to live here. We have a fire nearly every year, and the floods follow. There isn't a prettier, more secluded canyon in Southern California —when it isn't on fire or being washed away. Each time we have a disaster, only one or two families move out, but there are hundreds standing in line waiting to move in. People live here, come hell or high water. Both come, and we still stay.”
posted by languagehat at 12:13 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]

It's been difficult for me to pull away from the reporting of this disaster, from the initial fire weather warnings throughout the phenomenally fast spread of the fires, the extraordinary efforts to protect property and contain the fires through to the flash flood warnings, culminating in the tragic loss of lives. I lived in Santa Barbara & Montecito. My career started at the Forest Service fire station at the corner of Mountian Drive and Cold Springs Rd. The Romero fire of 1971 where four fighters lost their lives was my first major wildland fire. I knew the fire & flood areas intimately. The budget cuts that started during the Reagan era closed most of the USFS fire stations, reduced staff and did away with funding for prescribed fires and for fuel break maintenance.

The loss of lives is truly tragic. My heart goes out to the families, friends and co-workers of those who died, firefighters and general public.
posted by X4ster at 1:19 PM on January 11 [11 favorites]

You know you grew up in SoCal when your first thoughts about rains after wildfires is "Oh hell no!" and not "Thank goodness!" and you even wince a little when well meaning people hope or pray for rain on your behalf to put out the fires.

My grandparents home was high up in the hills above Glendale in La Canada-Flintridge, which definitely earns its name of initially being nothing but canyons and flinty ridges and very hot, dry southern facing chaparral. And, well, now it's a lot of sprawling estates and mid century Hollywood age bungalows, all overwatered and right up against the chaparral.

So I grew up with hearing about the hills being on fire or mud coming down the canyons every few years or so if not every, and it's just part of life there. But things seem to be getting much worse.

I've heard and seen smaller mudslides and arroyo floods moving and they're terrible. You can hear boulders grinding and pounding each other in the muck and flow and it's pretty much the worst sound I've heard. You really don't want to be in front of it. That stuff can go right through, under and over concrete walls and berms and you can only really try to direct to runouts and debris basins and let it spend kinetic energy and stop moving.

But developers keep pushing into areas they shouldn't build in and people keep buying the houses then saying "we didn't know".

This. I've been trying to say something about this while still being sensitive, but this is actually a really complicated problem that seems to be very particular to California, particularly in SoCal, and that's that geologic and hydraulic engineering isn't taken as seriously as earthquake and even fire codes and brush fire clearances.

I worked for a geologist and engineer once and that job involved a lot of driving out into the high desert to mineral assay sites (read, actual shallow hole in the ground being cored or dug up into sample cases) and his favorite getting stuck in traffic pastime was criticizing the bad geologic engineering visible all around us in the form of massive, sprawling single home developments tacked and stapled all over the hillsides and canyons around LA.

So as we drove around he'd point out all of the landfilled pads that were cut too steep to pack in more houses, how drainage features were used and rarely enough in the long term, how to spot signs of failure and inevitable earth movements and symptoms like slumping, settling and cracking - especially how they related to groundwater movement and features. A few of the projects he pointed out were projects he was a consultant on, and he could point out exactly where they cut a fill or mound much steeper than his guidelines, and where it was already eroding, cutting and slumping to a more natural angle of repose even though it was only a few years old.

And people really don't want to hear this, but in a lot of these newer developments cut into canyons and hillsides they are protected by little more than a few shallow concrete V-channel drainage ditches uphill, some perforated pipe and rock fill matrix downhill and their million dollar home is floating on a concrete pad on a bed of sand and gravel.

The bulk of the responsibility for this stuff definitely lies on the developers who cut corners like this and try to cram as many houses as possible into a development or subdivision.

And unfortunately this is going to be a huge problem leading to more disasters and loss of life in the next 15-20 years, especially as these developments age and further crowd into the hillsides. When new developments happen up-stream from a lot of the current recent developments they're probably going to find that their drainage and flood control problems increase because they didn't account for upstream development and increased flow rates and runoff issues.
posted by loquacious at 3:11 PM on January 11 [8 favorites]

This video from the LAT shows the size of the boulders that came down in the debris flow. Terrifying.
posted by rtha at 3:40 PM on January 11

This video from the LAT shows the size of the boulders that came down in the debris flow. Terrifying.

I lived in Santa Barbara. I klnow every one of the streets shown in the video. I drove up them to get to places like Cold Springs Trail, San Ysidro Trail, Hot Springs Trail. We used to go skinny dipping at those hot springs, which eventually got fenced off, and now are probably buried under tons of mud. That bit in the video showing a white wall with a CVS logo? Across the street was a restaurant my mother loved. A dyslexic, she gave directions to it as "The one with the green door, that's a lot larger than it looks on the outside, and it has the nicest waiter." She's gone years now, and the restaurant is probably closed years ago, and if it was still there, it would be knee deep in mud. That's the business heart of Montecito that street, covered in mud. Always changing, and now brown.

And, for the people muttering about irony and "Those rich fuckers deserved it"? There are a lot of middle class people in Montecito, in between the tiny boutiques and pricey restaurants. Montecito started out as extensive estates hidden behind tall hedges, but you know, history happens. Estates got split up, subdivided, even made into partially hidden trailer parks. Even the remaining estates had retirees and students living in cottages on the property, or people who lived full time caretaking. I suspect a lot of the dead in the mudslides had Spanish as a home language.

"But why didn't anybody see or do anything?"

Well, Montecito is largely narrow lanes, surrounded by tall hedges. It was hard to get a lay of the land. Even after being up in the hill trails, surrounded by the 10' high chaparral, fire was what worried us. Hell, the only reason I knew about the danger of slides was in our first winter after moving to SB, we had massive 20-year rains and half of our steeply inclined backyard slid into our neighbors. Which, thanks to our luck, was two years after our steeply inclined backyard in Ventura slid into our house (incidentally, I'm pretty sure the house in the hills of Ventura burned. Pity, Mom did an incredible landscaping job on that hill. Proper drainage, native plants, and all in the 70s. But I drunkenly digress). Things like that can seem like an omen, in retrospect.

But that doesn't really answer the question, of why nothing was done. The chaparral could.have been cut, dams and canals put in. I mean, it's not like the experts didn't know the risks, and after La Conchita was wiped out, a number of people were able to put two and two together.

So why didn't we do anything?

Well, for a start, it was too big. Like nuclear war. People, including me, would look at the possibilities, and recoil. The worst case damage was like World War Three. (And no, we haven't hit Worst Case Scenario. Ask me about the Mesa and potential.deaths from fire. Followed by debris flows.fhrough the West Side into downtown.) The mind recoiled from thinking about it.

Why couldn't we. Do. ANYTHING!?

Money. We couldn't afford to fix the problem.

The thing is, there's a bunch of wealthy people in Santa Barbara, but that doesn't mean SB is wealthy. A lot of the wealth was in the form of property rich but "pay you for your tutoring? Sure, in a couple months when my disbursement comes through" poor. The people who owned those big estates regularly had problems paying bills. The city looks nice, but it isn't rich. And it has an aversion to special taxes, like any moderately wealthy suburban zone.

And anyway, protecting the town properly was too big a job to expect a semi-rural community of maybe 150,000 to pay for. That is the sort of thing state and federal governments were created for. But guess what? From the 1980s on, every time Republicans had state or federal power, there were cutbacks in the agencies responsible for mitigating, or even doing studies on the fire and flooding problem. Even to Democratic administrations, potential threats to SB looked awfully abstract and speculative and hey, scientists are always warning about something, can't we spend the money on something concrete and immediate?

So, nothing was done, except a single flock of goats were brought in, too late. And then this happens. And I know the next time I go to SB, I'm going to look at the hills of the Mesa above downtown SB, then I'm going to go to my sister's house in the middle of the Mesa, and drink heavily.
posted by happyroach at 1:58 AM on January 12 [9 favorites]

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