Opening Sycamore Canyon for Fire Safety

Don Miller sat riveted to his television, watching wind-blown embers dance fire through Malibu and San Diego. As he watched, his temper smoldered. “I just kept thinking how the hell I would get my family out if we had a firestorm like that here in Montecito,” Miller said.

J'Amy Brown

For the past six months, well before the Zaca Fire, Miller has been seeking uniform evacuation protocols for the northwest section of Montecito. He says Montecito’s mountain communities-streets like West Mountain, Coyote, Westmont, and Cold Springs Road-are particularly vulnerable because they are nestled close to the highly flammable Los Padres National Forest. Also, one of their major escape routes, State Road 144, has been closed for nearly three years due to a landslide.

During the heavy rains of January 2005, State Road 144-a two-mile, two-lane stretch of road between State Highway 192 and the City of Santa Barbara, locally referred to as lower Sycamore Canyon Road-was covered by a slide, and that was only the beginning of the trouble. Thirty-seven property owners above and below the slide suffered damage, and they blamed Caltrans. They contended a faulty 1998 Caltrans repair to a previous landslide created the potential for the 2005 land slippage. A lawsuit was filed and Caltrans settled in July 2006-dolling out $17.8 million in damages along with a $50 million repair allotment to a newly formed neighborhood group, the Landslide Repair Foundation (LRF).

LRF President Ronald E. Stronach said the settlement authorizes the foundation to assume responsibility for the repair and stabilization of the hillside. LRF is currently in the first phase of a seven-phase repair plan. He said the plan is under county permit review and the first dirt could be moved as early as December. Projected completion date is set for November 2009.

Assemblymember Pedro Nava asked Caltrans to waive all fees associated with state permits. “By waiving the easement permit fees, Caltrans is demonstrating their desire to accelerate the repair,” Nava said. “Area residents want this road opened sooner rather than later.”

Don Miller

Neighborhood protection activist Miller concurs, but he’s found even trying to get 144 open on an emergency-only basis is a jurisdictional quagmire. While the slide area belongs to LRF, the road authority belongs to Caltrans. The road itself cuts through part of the City of Santa Barbara-giving it power-but it is mostly Montecito residents, who live outside the city in the county, who want emergency access to the road use. The Highway Patrol opens and closes roads, with assistance from the Sheriff.

Miller tried to bring the Montecito Fire Protection District into the mix by asking it to open 144 on high-danger fire days. Caltrans, however, believes the road is too perilous and slide prone for even limited traffic. To deter spot-use, they placed impervious locked iron gates across the road at the slide area. The Montecito Fire Protection District has a key, but can only open the gate if all fire chiefs in the county vote to call a red flag alert.

During the Zaca Fire, with the threat of fire hovering nearing Montecito, Montecito Fire Protection District Chief Kevin Wallace, at neighbors’ urging, bent the rules and opened the gates on a non-red-flag day. Caltrans quickly slapped them back shut, and Wallace got the message.

“I have absolutely no authority to close or open roads. It’s not that I don’t want to open them, but Caltrans has the jurisdiction,” Wallace said. “State Road 144 is not a safe evacuation route, and probably never will be,” he added. “It is narrow, and the slopes are slipping. The best thing everyone can do is look for an alternate route out.”

That solution does not douse Miller’s concern about Montecito’s evacuation options. “This past summer and this past week we have been able to dodge the bullet,” said Miller. “Maybe next time we won’t be as fortunate.


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