Fire & Mud:Regrettably, it’s not over

Andy Caldwell
COLAB Executive Director, guest editorialist, and radio talk show host

Last week, I along with many others warned our community that the collective sigh of relief from the Thomas Fire having been extinguished was premature and transitory, this having to do with the dreadful dangers presented by significant rain events coming our way. And, as it turns out, the hundreds of homes and numerous lives that were spared during the Thomas Fire, and this last flood event, may have only been spared temporarily.

I was shocked that so few people (15 percent?) who were ordered to evacuate did so. The majority of residents, apparently suffering from evacuation fatigue, ignored the warning that the approaching storm would have an impact 10 times stronger than normal due to the burn scar of the Thomas Fire.

I bear witness now that when another big storm comes our way, including those associated with the so-called Pineapple Express/Atmospheric River, we can expect similar devastation as occurred this past Tuesday. In other words, this isn’t over.

The hillsides are going to be prone to failure and debris flows for the next few years because the ground has been sterilized by the intensity of the Thomas Fire. Not much of anything can be planted that will grow fast enough to stabilize the dirt and boulders. Vigilance, bulldozers and debris basins are therefore our best hope for the time being.

What just happened in Montecito was predictable and preventable. The flood was the result of the fire, and the fire was the result of ridiculous amounts of fuel loading. While we can’t avert the cycles of fires and floods, we can and should mitigate the impacts of the same.

Unfortunately, we have been doing the exact opposite, preserving fuel loads as if they are sacred. We have scores of policies that serve to magnify hazards and risks. How many more catastrophic “natural” disasters must we endure before residents realize that there is something more to our experience than meets the eye?

Let’s make this perfectly clear. We are locked in a man-accentuated cycle of misery, destruction and death. Fuel loads (read that “environmentally sensitive habitat”) build up for decades.

Fire ravages the hillsides and canyons, threatening homes and lives. The fires burn so hot that the ground gets sterilized, meaning nothing will grow for years to come, guaranteeing unstable slopes giving way to debris flows. The debris flows begin the deadly path down creek corridors that are not maintained to ensure maximum conveyance capacity.

Instead, we have limited the ability of our flood control department to clear these riparian corridors of habitat in deference to “preservation and enhancement” efforts. The water, mud and debris overwhelm the culverts, allowing the flow to jump the banks, taking lives, homes and infrastructure in the process.

The politicians wring their hands in public, never doing anything to break the cycle, let alone confessing they helped create and foment the cycle.

Before we became “environmentally sensitive,” we reduced the fuel load to obviate these conflagrations, which have now become rather ordinary. We also cleared our rivers, streams and creeks of all the things that would diminish the water-carrying capacity of the same. We recognized then that today’s sensitive habitat was tomorrow’s deadly and destructive flood debris.

The policies that protect fuel loading and riparian habitat must be abrogated. We must demand our decision makers prioritize public safety as our highest purpose at the expense of habitat. Otherwise, habitat will continue to be protected and preserved at the cost of life, property and infrastructure.

We were set up for the terror and destruction of all these recent fires, along with the subsequent domino effect of the deadly flood event of Jan. 9. Horrific and tragic as it is, prepare for more to come.

Andy Caldwell is the executive director of COLAB and host of The Andy Caldwell Radio Show, weekdays from 3-5 p.m., on News-Press AM 1290.

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.