[Update: March 2, 9:37 A.M.] After the forecast amount of rain fell over the South Coast, no major incidents were reported and evacuations have been lifted. Read the morning update here.
[Original Story: March 1, 1:19 P.M.] With heavy winter rains set to pound the fire-scarred mountain tops behind Carpinteria, Montecito, and parts of Goleta and the Gaviota Coast, Sheriff Bill Brown issued mandatory evacuation orders that could affect as many as 30,000 people, effective noon on Thursday. Brown said residents will be given until 6 p.m. to grab what they need, pack their bags, hit the road, and find alternate accommodations. The sheriff explained that the storm — which is expected to pick up maximum steam at 2 a.m. — had “the potential” to trigger a debris flow event. He stressed that the orders were issued “out of an abundance of caution,” adding, “There is a risk to life and property and a risk of disruption of critical services.”
For those uncertain if they’re affected, interactive maps of the evacuation areas are available here. Anyone living downslope from the Thomas Fire, Whittier Fire, or Sherpa Fire are all under the mandatory orders. Translated into plainer language, that’s pretty much all of Montecito and Carpinteria with a few areas in between exempt. Likewise, the City of Santa Barbara is largely exempt, but those portions of Goleta and Gaviota below the Sherpa and Whittier fires are not.
Brown estimated that 22,000 people actually resided in the affected areas, but that another 8,000 would be affected because they worked or shopped in those areas.
The areas facing greatest threat, Brown stressed, are those running along creek channels. Beginning this afternoon, teams of deputies will begin knocking on the doors of people residing in those creek-channel high-danger zones. Brown said his deputies will not be able to hit every door in the total evacuation area and urged residents not to wait to be told to leave.
Brown acknowledged the evacuation would cause distress and inconvenience to many. “But an inconvenience is better than a risk to yourself or a risk to your friends or family,” he added.
For the emergency preparedness teams deliberating, it was a tough call. The rains predicted for tonight are just on the cusp of being strong enough to trigger debris flows, hence, the mandatory evacuations. Experts involved believe that rainfall of half-an-inch or more an hour would be enough to activate a debris flow. Most of the weather predictions indicated the bulk of the storm would deliver less than that. According to Eric Boldt, Warning Coordinator for the National Weather Service, most of the storm is expected to deliver no more than 0.25 to 0.4 inches an hour at its peak. (That’s significantly less than the peak of January 9 storm.) Even so, Boldt added, the storm had the potential to exceed the 0.5 inch-an-hour threshold. As the storm is driven up the mountain slopes, he said, it’s expected to drop more rain. Along the mountain tops, he said, meteorologists are expecting a total of three inches, but down along the coast, only one inch. “It’s really close,” he said.
Sheriff Brown noted that the storm had reportedly already dropped 0.6 inches up in Monterey. That fact helped tip the scales in favor of the mandatory evacuation. Brown said the discussion leading up to that decision was vigorous, candid, energetic, and challenging. But the consensus behind the decision, he stressed, was unanimous.
After serious fires like the Thomas Fire, the soil conditions remain ripe for debris flows for more than two years. Will mass evacuations be necessary every time there’s a serious rain for the next two years? This is a serious question for Brown and other emergency preparedness planners. “Look, we’re not going to be dragging people out of their homes,” said Brown, “but like I’ve said before, I hope people recognize this has become the new normal.”
In preparation for tonight’s heavy rains, emergency responders are pre-positioning 220 firefighters and other first responders in the affected areas before the rains start. Two helicopters are already on hand in case emergency evacuations are necessary with another five on call. Highway 101 will remain open for the time being. If it’s closed, that will happen only after evacuees have gotten out and after the rains have started.