Storm Sweeps Rapidly Across Santa Barbara County

Update: State Route 154 Reopened, Beaches Hammered by Big Waves, Evacuation Orders Lifted

San Ysidro Creek, which runs along the new Randall Road debris basin, fills its stream bed to the brim after last night's rainfall. | Credit: Keith Hamm

[Updated: January 5, 2023, 5 p.m.]

Criss-crossing earthworm tracks at a downtown park demonstrated the desperate struggle by the soil-dwellers to keep from drowning in last night’s deluge, a very small picture of a very large storm system that moved across Santa Barbara County more quickly than anticipated. Instead of the four to eight inches predicted, the rain clouds swept through, maxing out at about three to five inches in the mountains, propelled by winds gusting to nearly 50mph in some of the passes of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

State Route 154 was closed for more than eight hours Thursday between the 246 in Santa Ynez and Cathedral Oaks Road in Santa Barbara from rockslides “all over the place,” Highway Patrol Officer Jonathan Gutierrez said. Motorists had to take the 101 to go around the road through the San Marcos Pass until the 154 finally reopened in both directions at 3 p.m., according to Caltrans.

Closer to town, the 192 was blocked for a time from rock and mud as a fire crew from Montecito shoveled it back onto the hillside near Ortega Ridge Road. The 192 is otherwise back open for returning evacuees, as that evacuation order for near-stream dwellers was lifted this morning around 9:30 a.m. Gibraltar Road, however, is down to one lane at the moment due to a large boulder that crews are working to remove, said Christina Favuzzi, spokesperson for the Montecito Fire Department.

“People returning home might see minor debris in the roadway,” Favuzzi said, “but we feel it is safe enough to send people back home this morning.” The earth is saturated, and the possibility still exists that trees weakened from the drought could topple — as is occurring in some Santa Barbara side streets. “We want people to continue to be vigilant and aware of changing conditions,” Favuzzi added. “We’re not out of the woods with this storm, as the front continues to pass through and we might see thunderstorms this afternoon.”

A downed tree near the corner of Carrillo and Bath streets on Thursday morning, January 5, 2023 | Credit: Sarah Sinclair

Loma Alta Drive in the City of Santa Barbara closed to vehicles in October — a fire in May 2021 had scorched the steep hillside, which hadn’t revegetated sufficiently to stabilize the slope — and mud slid about 10 feet into the road in various places, streets manager Derrick Bailey said.

The storm action also caused a buildup of sand in the harbor mouth. Mariners could still use it — at their own risk — the city stated, and the Waterfront Department was meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss emergency dredging.

A surfer braves the big waves at Rincon on Thursday. | Credit: Zak Klobucher

The winter storm brought heavy surf to the Carpinteria shoreline, where waves reportedly reached heights of up to 25 feet Thursday afternoon, according to first-hand accounts and Surfline’s surf report. According to City of Carpinteria Emergency Services Program Manager Olivia Uribe-Mutal, “The Winter Protection Berm held up with only minor overtopping in the Linden to Elm Avenue block,” but she warned that more high surf is predicted for high tide on Friday around 8:30 a.m. before eventually subsiding Saturday.

Down at Goleta Beach, the ongoing effort to revive the former Beachside Café was hammered by a few big waves in the morning. 

“We have some flooding on the patios and the main dining room,” said proprietor Omar Kashen, who explained that the storm took out the patio glass windows and a small wooden planter wall. “We need to wait out the next few days of storm surge until we can get in and pump it all out and assess the damage.  I’m hoping it’s only a minor setback and we have it all repaired within a couple weeks.”

The storm also scuttled plans for Solvang Christmas Tree Burn, scheduled to take place this Friday, January 6, after the field at Mission Santa Ines where the annual community bonfire was set to take place was inundated with rain. Instead, Waste Management will convert the trees to mulch, according to Solvang Parks and Recreation Department.

The rains scooched the needle upward at Lake Cachuma to 32.5 percent full, and the county’s normal-to-date rainfall is at 192 percent, not bad for a La Niña year.

The weather maps show a succession of storms out in the Pacific, with the next expected to hit shore sometime on Sunday. Forty-eight hours may help the hillsides get drier, although the front-country creeks are now full of muddy water from bank to bank.

At Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens, the gardeners were taking advantage of the moist earth to pull weeds, and most all of the earthworms had dived underground again by then.

Strong waves battered Santa Barbara’s coast on Thursday, causing a buildup of sand in the harbor mouth. | Credit: Courtesy

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