As spotty power outages and anticipated flooding put a damper on businesses and neighborhoods countywide during last weekend’s storm, the section of Gaviota Coast scorched by last summer’s Sherpa Fire suffered the worst damage. A torrential downpour that started in the early-morning hours of Friday, January 20, scoured the 7,474-acre wildfire scar, triggering flash floods and dangerous debris flows.
The El Capitan Canyon private campground reportedly lost five structures and 22 vehicles to flash flooding as the swollen creek pushed trees, boulders, and two vehicles downstream all the way under Highway 101 to the ocean at El Capitan State Beach. Both campgrounds were evacuated without injuries. While state officials hope to have the public campground open by this weekend, the private campground remains closed as crews mop up with heavy machinery. Nearby Ocean Mesa RV Resort and Campground also remained closed as of Wednesday morning.
In the canyon immediately west of El Capitan, Corral Creek cut a wide swath as it backed up behind a debris-clogged concrete tunnel beneath the highway. The rising waters inundated a nearby avocado orchard and severely damaged the Orella Adobes, a pair of historic landmarks built by Ygnacio Ortega as part of the original Rancho Cañada del Corral. Ownership passed to the Orella family in 1866. ExxonMobil Corporation has owned the property since 1971.
“Our primary focus remains the safety of our people, operations, and the surrounding community,” said Todd Spitler, a media advisor with the oil giant, which operates a process facility upstream in Las Flores Canyon. “We continue to assess impacts of flooding to our site and the historic buildings.” No injuries were reported.
Guner Tautrim, a farmer who lives nearby, said the highest mud marks on what’s left of the adobes show that the creek reached a depth of at least 12 feet. A nearby outbuilding looks to have “detonated,” he added. Large pieces of its roof have settled in the sycamores near the drainage tunnel.
Tautrim’s neighbor in nearby Refugio Canyon said the flash floods were triggered by a slowly passing storm cell that dumped two inches of rain in an hour. Between January 17 and January 24, Refugio Pass recorded eight inches of rain. Downtown Santa Barbara received just under five inches. The countywide average is now 163 percent of normal.
Late Sunday afternoon in Isla Vista, a section of bluff-top patio collapsed into the sea. Pelted by wind and rain and smashed by exceptionally large surf — with waves topping out in the 10- to 15-foot range all weekend — the college community’s crumbly shale sea cliff at 6653 and 6663 Del Playa Drive gave way just before dark, spooking students inside their apartments just steps away.
“The waves were crazy all day,” said UCSB junior Nina Kar. “That morning I was texting pictures of the patio to my friends, saying, ‘See you guys later! My house is about to fall off the cliff!’ Later on we heard a big boom when [the patio] collapsed. It felt like an earthquake.”
Nobody was on the patio during the collapse or otherwise injured. According to Kar, 35 tenants had to be evacuated from the apartment complex. She added that property owner James Gelb has refunded her security deposit and rent for the last 10 days of January and also offered to pay for movers.
“I’ve been here [in Isla Vista] for 22 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Gelb said, adding that cliff erosion has forced him to scale back seaward sections of his oceanfront rentals. For his seven-unit complex at 6653 Del Playa, Gelb said that to provide the necessary setback from the new cliff edge, he’ll have to remove two units completely and likely cut two others in half.
Next door at 6663, property manager Wolfe & Associates has installed a chain-link fence to block tenants from venturing out onto the now severely undercut concrete patio. A tenant there said nobody has been evacuated.