Supervisor Das Williams and artist Susan Venable | Credit: Courtesy

A memorial for the 23 victims lost in Montecito’s 1/9 Debris Flow in 2018 has been relocated from San Ysidro Ranch to Lower Manning Park, more than two years after the seven-ton memorial sculpture was installed at the ranch in 2019. 

Susan Venable, a metalworking artist based out of Santa Barbara, created the memorial sculpture soon after joining a volunteer group responding to the disaster and picking through the ruins of more than 130 destroyed homes. Montecito resident Joan Chackel donated the boulder that would become the memorial to Venable, after it came to rest on her property on Hot Springs Road following the mudslide. 

In the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, Venable and her husband became volunteers with the Bucket Brigade, a community group formed in response to the debris flow for the purpose of digging mud and debris out of homes, helping families find lost belongings, cleaning up public spaces, and clearing out trails and walking paths. “We dug out a lot of homes,” Venable said. “It was hard to see.”

Once the roads opened again, Venable said she drove along Jameson Road, where she saw the street lined with boulders, some pushed from far above the road and coated in mud and debris. This vision of boulders standing tall, protecting anything beyond the road, inspired Venable to create a memorial to honor those lost to the debris flow. “I was struck by the beauty of all those boulders,” Venable said. “Even though they were sort of a symbol of the destruction, they are also a symbol of what we live with.”

Once the memorial was completed, Venable coordinated with the ownership of San Ysidro Ranch to have it installed on March 20, 2019. There it remained for more than two years until last week, according to Venable, when the memorial was moved behind a large hedge by the ranch without any notification. 

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Rachel Maher, founder of REM Public Relations, a travel and real estate public relations company, explained the move on behalf of San Ysidro Ranch. “Our team thoughtfully chose an area near public access trails for the community members who were touched by the meaning of ‘23 Strong’ as opposed to a private resort area for hotel guests,” Maher said. “We support the move to Lower Manning Park and are pleased that this special memorial will continue to serve as a gathering place of remembrance and healing for the community.”

Deciding the memorial would be better suited in a public location rather than the private ranch, Venable relocated the boulder to Lower Manning Park, at her own expense. Despite an initial refusal from Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation, Venable reached out to County Supervisor Das Williams, who was able to help her accomplish the relocation. “We were alarmed when it got moved at the ranch,” Williams said. “Now thousands of parents can use it as they’re watching their kids, and this will have a spirit of remembrance for the people we lost.”

The memorial now sits just outside the playground at Lower Manning Park, where Venable said it can now be enjoyed by parents, kids, and residents alike. “This is the perfect spot for it to be forever,” Venable said. “I think we went from ruin to remembrance.”

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