Even the brush chipper working next door went quiet when Salud Carbajal called for a minute of silence to remember the people who died in Montecito during the terrible debris flow three years ago. “Take a look around us,” Carbajal said, gesturing to the wall of rocks behind him surrounded by acres of dried mud, “and let’s remember the 23 lives lost.” The roughly 100 people gathered to mark the commencement of the Randall Road Debris Basin fell silent, the only sound the quiet trickle of San Ysidro Creek competing with traffic passing on East Valley Road.
The new debris basin lies just above State Route 192, at a point where boulders and tree trunks “floating” on a massive mudflow tore through seven homes after a devastating downpour broke over the Thomas Fire–scarred foothills. Two people who lived on Randall Road were killed, Dr. Mark Montgomery and his 22-year-old daughter, Caroline Montgomery; Rebecca Riskin and Josie Gower were lost below the road.
Neighbor Tony Cheetham recalled thinking an earthquake had struck when the jousting of boulders rumbling down the creek woke him up that morning in 2018. He was across East Valley Road from Randall Road. Kathy Waldref’s mother lived in the family home on Randall Road, but her mother had been evacuated that night and has lived to see her 93rd year arrive next week. Waldref said she later found an electric clock in the debris, pulled from its socket and set awash at 3:43 a.m.
Santa Barbara County Public Works anticipates that the new debris basin will allow the boulders and tree trunks to settle out during the next flood and let the surge of water and mud flow beneath the bridge.
And there will be another one. Curtis Skene had survived a similar mud flow in 1969 as a kid, and he sat cold and wet outside the same East Valley Lane home on January 9, 2018, pondering how to never let it happen again. At the “first shovel” ceremony on Monday, much of the morning’s round of speeches went to praise Skene, who had visited each of his Randall Road neighbors, asking gently what they thought about selling their property to the county for a giant catchment basin. He brought the idea to Tom Fayram, visiting him in his office at County Flood Control, where Fayram called to engineer Jon Frye to come over: “I got goosebumps,” Frye said of the moment Skene described the potential eight acres at Randall Road that had a near-perfect slope for a debris basin, 6 degrees.
Skene credited Vickie Riskin, who lost her cousin Rebecca to the disaster, for helping bring Randall Road residents around. Skene’s partner, Kris Kirkelie, did the research that found handwritten accounts of the same area flooding back to the 1800s. Some of that is documented by the Bucket Brigade, Kirkelie said, among them two people who died while walking home in 1914 when the creek was in flood. The history of the area helped several of the residents consider a big dig preferable to rebuilding; six of them have accepted $1.4 million for their property from the county.
One home, funded for a rebuild by its insurance carrier, was purchased in 2019 for $4 million. That big outlay was in some ways a downpayment for FEMA, said Skene, as it convinced the federal agency that Santa Barbara County was serious about building the debris basin there. FEMA provided a grant of $13.5 million for the $17.5 million project, which is three times the normal-sized grant from the emergency agency. The last remaining parcel is that of Dr. Mark Montgomery. His widow, Catherine Montgomery, has been reluctant to part with the property, though the county continues to keep the door open in negotiations.
The Montgomery property lies near East Valley Road, and the county will build the upper portion of the debris basin first, splitting the project into two phases. Contractor Vince Lopez of Santa Maria said it will take about seven months to complete the first phase, and the second, if it comes to fruition, could be a few months more.
Carbajal, Montecito’s county supervisor before his election to Congress in 2016, handed the podium to his successor, Supervisor Das Williams, who addressed the grassroots issues of valuing safety over aesthetics, and also deeper issues of the pain of loss. The Randall Road basin gave the community a way to “prevent other people from experiencing this pain and devastation,” Williams said. “And we all will experience a crisis of this magnitude again.”