Two Years After Fire and Flood: Summary of Research Outcomes & Next Steps

On Sunday, January 26, more than 300 community members filled the Museum’s Fleischmann Auditorium to hear from scientists and local experts about the impacts of the Thomas Fire and January 9 debris flows two years later.

In addition to the terrible direct impacts of these events on our community, ash from the fire and mud relocated to beaches also affected the health of the Santa Barbara coast and channel. Organized by UCSB Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, Community Environmental Council (CEC), Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, and the Santa Barbara Foundation, the event was meant to inform the public about the latest ongoing research assessing the extent of these impacts, and what it might tell us about how to improve our response to future disasters. Opening remarks were made by Luke J. Swetland, President & CEO of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, followed by flash talks from a range of experts. A panel discussion and Q&A were facilitated by Bren School Dean Steven Gaines, Ph.D., who meshed the perspectives of conservationists and government agencies with public feedback from the audience (thanks to the use of smartphones as polling devices).

For more in-depth coverage of the event, visit https://sbnature.org/publications/blog/2/posts/63/two-years-after-fire-flood-a-community-conversation.

To view a recording of the event, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gYrZASswev8

Sarah Anderson, Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara, Bren School of Environmental Science & Management

Political scientist Dr. Anderson shared, “After observing this community for the last couple years, I think . . . we’ve taken some actions that seem to have reduced our risk in the long term.” Based on her survey of the Montecito community, most residents are now more prepared for disaster: more than 40% of respondents to her survey of 600 households made renovations to protect their homes from wildfire, over 70% have a survival kit and evacuation plan, about 80% are set up to receive emergency alerts, more than 60% have defensible space around their homes, and about a quarter made renovations to protect their homes from debris flow.

Andrew J. Brooks, Ph.D., UC Natural Reserve System

Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve, part of the UC Natural Reserve System, is a biodiversity hotspot which is home to over 250 species of plants (many of which are endangered), over 200 bird species, and about 150 species of invertebrates and fish. Reserve Director Andrew J. Brooks described how after the debris flow in Carpinteria, a volume of material equivalent to 19,500 dumpsters flowed into and across the marsh, clogging its channels.

Invertebrates and fish living in the channels were smothered by sediment, and “the loss of those species caused disruptions to the marsh food web,” reported Brooks. 

After this disruption, administrators chose to step back and observe the marsh’s natural response. In the years since the disaster, the marsh has partially recovered, but chronic stressors impair that process. = “Poor water quality is another stressor the marsh ecosystem has to face. The more additional stressors we put on an ecosystem, the less able it is to respond to these large impacts, such as debris flows.” This was a recurring motif throughout the discussion: habitats we protect with our daily actions are more likely to bounce back from big disasters, whereas the ecosystems that are already stressed by human impacts could entirely cease to function when hit by an extraordinary strain.

Tom Fayram, Santa Barbara County Flood Control

Water Resources Deputy Director Tom Fayram shared that as extreme weather events become more common with climate change, public agencies need to shift their standard procedures. For example, smarter debris basin design can help: “One thing we’ve learned that we’re trying to implement moving forward,” explained Fayram, “the Gobernador Debris Basin [in Carpinteria] was notched and made fish-passable, and it also allowed the natural sediments to pass through.” Obstacles remained that trapped large boulders as desired. “It was a pilot project,” and the fact that it worked during the debris flow in Carpinteria has encouraged S.B.C. Public Works to replicate the design elsewhere. “We’re now applying that to many other debris basins across the south coast, so that 1) they do a better job of stopping the large rocks, and 2) they keep the sediment in the natural system, and let it go to the ocean where it needs to go.” S.B.C. Public Works has filed grant applications with FEMA to modify Cold Spring, San Ysidro, and Romero Debris Basins in this way.

Mauricio Gomez, South Coast Habitat Restoration

South Coast Habitat Restoration (SCHR) Director Mauricio Gomez introduced SCHR as a non-profit that “builds partnerships which restore degraded habitats.” He stated that since the debris flows “our creeks look nothing like they used to look like.” For example, the debris flow transformed a restoration site on upper Carpinteria Creek, scouring some areas and filling others in with sediment. It stripped vegetation, removing the “riparian trees which provided cover for a lot of the species that were in the creek channel there.” Fortunately, the debris basin upstream caught many of the boulders which would otherwise have flowed down the creek, and SCHR’s redesigned bridges held, trapping some large floating logs.

The dramatic reshaping of landscapes SCHR had so slowly and deliberately restored motivated them to convene the Fire and Flow Forum, a series of large meetings of non-profits and governmental agencies working in restoration locally. Over 150 participants assembled a master list of goals and priorities for watershed restorers in the region. To download the complete Fire and Flow Forum Strategic Plan visit http://schabitatrestoration.org/projects/fire-and-flow.

Brandon Steets, P.E., Geosyntec Consultants

Brandon Steets of Geosyntec Consultants described in detail how the debris disposal at Goleta Beach affected water quality. Between mid-January and late February 2018, 40,800 cubic yards of material were deposited at the beach. “It’s not the first time that volume of material has been placed at Goleta Beach,” Steets noted, “for beach nourishment periods in the past, similar volumes have been placed there.” The material was screened for large debris and tested for toxic chemicals, to keep these off the beach. Agencies tested for fecal indicator bacteria during and after the disposal project, periodically returning to three locations in the surf zone to do so. “These are the same bacteria that are sampled [for] across California beaches all summer long,” as part of normal public health measures, Steets explained Santa Barbara County Public Health closed the beach during this time. As is typically the case during normal beach nourishment activities, levels of fecal indicator bacteria were high. “What was different this time,” said Steets, “is that the fecal indicator bacteria remained elevated for months following the disposal.” In response, the county hired Geosyntec to investigate.

Geosyntec sampled for human DNA markers to determine whether human waste was a contributing source to the elevated bacterial levels. This was important because bacteria from specifically human waste are understood to pose the greatest health risks to humans. Fortunately, the tests detected human DNA markers at levels far below EPA-imposed limits. Concentrations of all indicator bacteria returned to safe levels and the county was able to reopen the beach in July.

Ben Pitterle, M.S., Santa Barbara Channelkeeper

Santa Barbara Channelkeeper Science and Policy Director Ben Pitterle weighed in during the panel discussion and Q&A ,with information about the history of past human interventions in the watershed that have done more harm than good:  

“A lot of the legacy of impact to our watersheds occurred because we historically developed in floodplains. When we did that, there was an obligation to go in and protect those homes. One of the ways we’ve done that is by altering our watersheds. We . . . made [creeks] straight, to keep them from meandering, and when you do that, you accelerate the water. The water’s moving faster, and now you have more erosion issues. So we armor streambanks.” Turning creeks into concrete channels, explained Pitterle,  “destroys the ecosystem, and I would say, has an even more insidious effect in that it causes the community to not care about these places anymore.”

Pitterle expressed doubt that conventional solutions would measure up to future challenges, a concern echoed by some in the audience: “It’s important to ask, at what point do we leave these systems alone? . . . In the long term, do we think we can manage sea level rise, fires, flooding, with bulldozers, sea walls, and concrete? At some point, does the community need to face up to the fact that we’re living in places that are in the path of nature, and that we can’t control nature? . . . As a community, we need to start talking about getting out of the way.”

Kim Selkoe, Ph.D., National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

Dr. Selkoe (of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis [NCEAS], Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara [CFSB], and the community supported sustainable fishery Get Hooked) expressed observations and concerns from a waterfront and fisheries perspective. Selkoe alerted the audience that “the city just had a hearing about sea level rise, and [released] their new plan and analysis, and it’s pretty dire. I think that we can start to make preparations for sea level rise, and that really affects our coastal economy [and the fishing community] in a big way.” She shared anecdotal evidence from the fishing community, including reports from kelp harvesters who observed that “South of Montecito to the northern Ventura border, the kelp forest declined rapidly after the debris flow. The folks that harvest the kelp on the kelp-cutter boat . . . we’re not able to work at those beds anymore . . .  those kelp forests were really starting to fade after the debris flow, and so they moved their operations to the north.”

Sigrid Wright, M.A., Community Environmental Council

Toward the end of the program, CEC CEO Wright called on the audience to move beyond education and awareness, and get involved in the planning process. She drew parallels between the enormous loss felt in the community following the Thomas Fire and debris flows, and the devastation of the 1969 oil spill. She described the recent events as “the turning point in the public discussion about our changing climate. I have personally worked on climate change for over 25 years, and it took these two very painful illustrations [fire and debris flow] to highlight how the changing climate is playing out on the Central Coast.” As in the aftermath of the oil spill that birthed the modern environmental movement, “people who would not have considered themselves activists were moved by the enormity of the disaster and its impact on public safety, public health, and natural systems.” She contrasted the emerging sense of ecology at the time of the oil spill with our current knowledge. “Today we have much more sophisticated tools to understand that healthy, functioning ecosystems are like healthy, functioning human bodies. . . I’ve come to think of environmental scientists like M.D.s who are sending us a very clear message: that without environmental health, we cannot thrive.”

Eight Ways to Personally Improve Our Community’s Resilience

At the end of the Q&A, each panel member offered a specific recommendation for individuals:

  1. Sign up for Aware and Prepare alerts. –Tom Fayram, Santa Barbara County Flood Control
  2. Reduce your own carbon footprint. –Ben Pitterle, M.S., Santa Barbara Channelkeeper
  3. Get to know your neighbors, so you can rely on each other in an emergency. Find out what different people in your neighborhood can do to help when things get serious. –Kim Selkoe, Ph.D., National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis
  4. Make a habit of picking up trash and dog waste, and reduce your use of pesticides. (Doing this keeps waterways healthier so they can be more resilient in a disaster.) –Brandon Steets, P.E., Geosyntec Consultants
  5. Keep telling the story of the Thomas Fire and debris flows, although it can be painful. It’s important that we don’t forget risks and lessons, and we need to share what we’ve learned with surrounding communities and newcomers to our own community. –Sarah Anderson, Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara, Bren School of Environmental Science & Management
  6. Be engaged at all levels. “My father used to say, ‘If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.’” –Andy Brooks, Ph.D., UC Natural Reserve System
  7. Support groups you know are doing a great job to protect the environment and improve the community. –Mauricio Gomez, South Coast Habitat Restoration
  8. Participate in planning meetings yourself. Pay attention to what’s happening at the city and county level. Local governments are often convening meetings at which public input is essential. If you can, show up and participate. This is “kind of geeky, but extremely important.” The planning processes are “only as strong as those of us who show up.” –Sigrid Wright, M.A., CEO, Community Environmental Council

Bank of America, the SBMNH’s Christel Bejenke Fund, and Strategic Samurai provided generous financial and in-kind support for this event.

A second 2020 community conversation is planned for this fall.

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About the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

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