After consulting with experts of the National Weather Service earlier in the week, Santa Barbara Fire Chief Pat McElroy had this to say: “It’s hot.” He then added, “It’s really hot.” With Santa Barbara in the grips of a searing, sheering heat at what’s traditionally been the onset of wildfire season — seasonal lines of demarcation began blurring many years ago — McElroy added Santa Barbara is not slated for any of the Santa Ana or sundowner winds that create such risky and inflammatory weather patterns. Given that temperatures have been hitting triple digits in the latest heat wave, that’s a relief. “We’re dodging that kind of wind,” McElroy said. But Ventura, Los Angeles, and San Diego, he said, won’t be so lucky. Beginning next Tuesday, McElroy said the mercury is supposed to hover comfortably in the 70s, adding there’s even talk — 20- to 30-percent chance — of rain.
This Tuesday McElroy gave a presentation to the Santa Barbara City Council, outlining the steps being taken to deal with potential flash flooding in the event of El Niño storms. National Weather Service experts were on hand to underscore the high likelihood of an especially strong El Niño — on par with 1997 — the wettest year on record — or 1983. Strong El Niños are associated with temperature anomalies of 2.3 degrees Celsius in the ocean; this year, weather experts are reporting a difference of 2.4 degrees Celsius.
In fact, coastal waters have grown so warm they can almost sustain hurricanes, which typically need temperatures of 78 degrees Fahrenheit. Currently, coastal waters are ranging between 73 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Such news might be seen as a welcome reprieve, given City Hall is currently embarking on a $55-million construction project to refurbish the city’s long mothballed desalination plant. But given that in two of the last six El Niño events, less than average amounts of rain fell, councilmembers were persuaded they could not risk any delays getting the desal plant on-line.
This coming week, McElroy announced, city first responders will be conducting an emergency drill among all agencies. “Preparation is important, but cooperation is absolutely essential for us,” he said. The difference between hazards such as sudden fires and heavy rains, he said, is the extent to which the rains can be anticipated and responded to. Flood control personnel, McElroy said, had been dispatched to Sycamore Creek to clear trees, branches, and other debris that can impede flows and exacerbate flooding. Such work, he said, was not scheduled to take place until next year, but because of concern by residents, the Santa Barbara County Flood Control District accelerated its creek clearing schedule to accommodate Sycamore Creek sooner.
City Council candidate Jacqueline Inda has made an issue of that creek — perhaps the most susceptible to flood events — as part of her campaign. So too have other property owners and residents at the Flamingo Mobile Home Park on Cacique Street.
Although considerable work has been done on the bridges spanning Sycamore Creek — raising them in elevation and expanding their span to increase flow capacity — the creek’s ability to handle intense floods remains limited. In a typical year, Santa Barbara experiences five storm events. In El Niño, there tend to be 13. Depending how much time there is between storms, the land can absorb the rain and reduce the risk of floods. But if they come back-to-back, there’s not enough time for absorption. In the event of heavy rains, McElroy cautioned residents from getting too close to creek banks. Six inches of running water, he said, could knock a person off their feet. Two feet could move a car down the road. On October 17, City Hall will distribute free sand bags to city residents.