Aerial shot of the newly completed Randall Road Debris Basin | Credit: Lael Wageneck/S.B. Co. Public Works

On a crisp, sunny October morning, the County of Santa Barbara officially opened the first debris basin built here since 1971. Located across eight acres that once held seven homes, the big dig on Randall Road should contain the floodwaters that have crested over the banks of San Ysidro Creek to a significant degree at least five times in recorded history, most recently on January 9, 2018. In the early morning hours that day, hard on the heels of the scorching damage to the mountains by the Thomas Fire, a monster burst of rain sent a ground-shaking quantity of boulders, mud, and trees over the creekbanks in Montecito and smashing into homes. Twenty-three people died that day, four of them in the area of Randall Road.

The death and destruction resulting from that fire and rainstorm are hard to fathom today, looking out at the basin’s graded slopes planted with native vegetation and the beefy debris fences arranged along the bottom. But the high, dry winds of a couple nights ago were a reminder that fire weather is near at hand after a brief spell of fog and rain.

It took two years for the Randall Road debris basin to be built, after conversations among neighbors led six of them to sell their property to the county. The initial phase of the dig went around the one property owner who did not agree to sell. The county gained a right of possession over the property in an eminent domain action last fall, a process that is still being completed.

Walter Rubalcava is the new head of County Flood Control, filling the big shoes of Tom Fayram, who retired last December. Rubalcava said he spent the night of the debris flow at Public Works in disbelief, watching the remote creek monitors display record amounts of flow. At the ribbon-cutting on Monday, he said, “After the next flood event or wildfire that occurs, the hope is that when the debris comes down that mountain, more of that debris will be captured here, helping to protect the community, the neighborhoods, and the network of roadways down below.”


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