The steady procession of rainfall that began with an early-morning thunderstorm late last week dropped several inches of much-needed precipitation countywide. The rain gauge at San Marcos Pass registered over 10 inches in six days; downtown received about six inches during the same period. While the greater Santa Barbara County region officially remains in the throes of historic drought — now in its seventh straight year — the water level at Lake Cachuma is on the rise, and wildfire-ravaged mountains and backcountry are regrowing more green by the day. After the last storm cell blew through Monday night, dropping bursts of hail on some areas, Cachuma was approaching 47 percent capacity while countywide rain totals reached 81 percent of a normal year.
Late last week, the ominous forecast prompted county officials to call evacuation orders for creekside and lowland neighborhoods near burn scars left by the Sherpa, Whittier, and Thomas fires. The Sheriff’s Office reported that evacuation compliance in Montecito “red zone” flood-risk areas was 83 percent. The hardest rains arrived Saturday at approximately 8:30 a.m. and quickly flooded problem intersections downtown and filled creeks to capacity. In Montecito, overflow from Oak and Romero creeks spilled onto Highway 101, forcing officials to shut down both directions for several hours.
As evacuees returned home on Sunday, the National Weather Service issued a tornado watch near Refugio State Beach, and crews with Santa Barbara County Flood Control remained busy clearing boulders from Montecito debris basins. “This debris basin [in Romero Canyon] worked perfect,” said Rick Tomasini, a maintenance superintendent with County Flood Control, who had been standing on a bank of the basin just after 9 a.m. Saturday when a massive surge of floodwaters drained from Romero Canyon, carrying trees and rock. “There was nothing in here [on Friday],” he added, pointing to a large field of boulders, approximately 20 to 30 feet deep, that had collected in the catchment. “It worked like it was supposed to.”
Assistant Fire Marshal Alex Broumand with Montecito Fire said, “The calls we were getting were service calls,” such as downed trees and minor residential flooding. “But no medical calls, no rescues.”
That same downpour early Saturday triggered a debris flow from the Whittier Fire burn scar in DeVaul Canyon, near Lake Cachuma, which clogged a culvert deep beneath Highway 154. The diverted runoff and debris forced officials to close the flooded thoroughfare in both directions; as of print deadline Wednesday morning, it remained closed. On the Riviera, Alameda Padre Serra is closed at Arguello Road, after heavy rains opened a sinkhole in the roadway. The city estimates that the reopening of APS will take two weeks; motorists are encouraged to avoid the area.