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Coming Like a Freight Train

The Time to Prepare for Post-Gap Fire Impacts Is Now


Thursday, August 21, 2008

I recently sat in a small conference room with Tom Fayram, deputy director of Santa Barbara County’s Public Works Department, and pored over a huge map. We were looking at the county’s plan to deal with impacts of the Gap Fire, which will be heading our way once the rainy season begins.

Fayram pointed out different spots on the map that his staff has identified as “critical” parts of the Gap Fire Emergency Watershed Response Plan. “What we are looking at is as much as 300,000 cubic yards of debris coming down from the burn areas - and that’s if we only have a small to less-than-average rain year,” explained Fayram, who then referenced last year’s statistics in vivid terms. “Though last year wasn’t a big rain year, on January 5, the San Marcos Pass gauge registered nine inches of rain that night. Nine inches in one night this year would cause major flooding. It could be like a freight train coming down the mountain.”

His warning continued. “I can’t represent to anyone that we can stop the flow from impacting the Goleta Valley,” said Fayram. “There is a risk here that we can’t totally abate but we’ll use every tool we have at our disposal to do as much as we can.” These tools include: more than 16 miles of stream clearing to open up the channels so the debris doesn’t snag up; debris “racks” that will be used to catch the brush before it reaches the residential areas; a number of large silt basins to catch the sand that is being carried downstream; and the “K” rail used as highway dividers to line several of the most vulnerable areas, including Los Carneros Road and San Pedro Creek.

Basically, we know the debris flow is coming,” Fayram explained, “and we want to do everything we can to get the woody vegetation out of the channels as soon as possible so they stay open and allow the sediments to continue down to the siltation basins.” Those basins-one for each watershed, namely Glen Annie, Los Carneros, San Pedro, and San Jose-are situated just outside the airport boundaries. They can handle between 15,000 and 30,000 cubic yards of sediment each - close to 100,000 cubic yards total - but even without the burn impacts, a single storm has filled these to capacity in past years.

But this year we could fill them with a storm perhaps three inches total,” Fayram said. “For one that dumps more rain, especially if the rain exceeds an inch every half hour - which is often the case - we may not be able to handle that much debris flow and more than likely we can expect flash flooding.”

For Fayram, a perfect rain year would consist of short, gentle storms, no more than three to five inches total, that are spread out over a number of days, with enough recovery time to dredge out the basins and clean out the debris racks. “Our turnaround time is about a week before the next storm event,” he explained. “But the odds aren’t good that we’ll be that lucky.”

In addition to these measures, the county is working with the Forest Service and the National Weather Service to develop what might be termed an “early warning system” when storms approach to provide Goleta residents with advance notice of flash flood dangers. Rain gauges will be installed in several locations in the upper watersheds that could be linked to warning sirens, reverse 911 calls, and other means of communication. Fayram cautions, however, that due to the short, steep nature of the watersheds that it may be difficult to provide enough time for a meaningful warning.

The county has also requested support from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, whose job is to work with private landholders to deal with threats to their land. The county is recommending to the NRCS that aerial mulching be used in the upper canyons to help hold the soil in place and are working with the individual ranchers to determine the best ways to help them out. These are the ranches that absorbed the impacts from the fire itself and provided the defensible space that kept the flames from reaching Cathedral Oaks. When the mud begins to flow, they will also be the first ones impacted by it.

One of the key things homeowners can do now if you feel like you might be in the line of fire is to check into the availability of flood insurance. “Now is the time to get it if you are concerned about your home flooding,” explained William Boyer, the county’s communications director. “Policies don’t go into effect until 30 days after being activated. If you wait until the rain starts to fall, it may be too late.”

Plans are currently being made for a town hall meeting on Thursday, September 11, to talk about the county’s Gap Fire Emergency Watershed Response Plan and the Forest Service’s BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) Recommendations. Emphasis will be on providing information about flood insurance and allowing people to understand what has happened and where we go from here. The time and location are to-be-announced.

For more ongoing post-Gap Fire coverage, see independent.com/gap. For more of Ray Ford writing about the outdoors, see independent.com/outdoors.

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