LOCAL CALIFORNIA

Tracking a path of destruction from Montecito’s mountains to the ocean

Based on historical data, a half-inch of rain falling in an hour would be enough to start a debris flow in the fire-charred mountains, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

But historical examples vastly understated what would come early Tuesday morning.

At 3:30 a.m., a half-inch fell in only five minutes, unleashing a torrent from parts of the Santa Ynez Mountains that had been scorched by the Thomas fire last month. Gravity pulled the mud, boulders and trees down hills stripped of their vegetation toward the multimillion-dollar homes of Montecito.

The deluge broke the banks of picturesque San Ysidro Creek, one of four streams traversing the community. On its two-mile course southward to the sea, the debris from San Ysidro Creek thrashed dozens of homes from plantation estates to Mediterranean villas, leaving at least one dead.

Here is how it happened, as seen from above.

Map of evacuation zones in Montecito with San Ysidro Creek
Jon Schleuss / Los Angeles Times

In the evacuation zone

Santa Barbara County officials knew the coming storm could be devastating. They drew an east-west line through the middle of Montecito marking the area they considered most at risk.

Weighing the probabilities, a command staff including firefighters, sheriffs, and watershed managers ordered a mandatory evacuation of everything north of State Highway 192, in the neighborhoods cupped against the mountains. Areas south of the highway, up to the coast, were placed under a voluntary evacuation order.

An aerial photo taken north of State Highway 192 shows what was Randall Road and homes on either side of it on Wednesday still under the overflow from San Ysidro Creek.

View north of State Highway 192
North of State Highway 192, what used to be Randall Road and the homes along it were were covered in mud Wednesday. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

Beyond the evacuation zone

In its drive to the coastline the roiling San Ysidro paid no heed to the official designation of a high-hazard zone. It plunged across Highway 192, spreading through the wooded flatland between the Birnam Wood Golf Club and the estate of Montecito’s most celebrated inhabitant.

View of Montecito looking south towards the Pacific Ocean
Santa Barbara County officials ordered mandatory evacuations north of State Highway 192. The flood didn't stop there. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

Oprah’s house

While nature struck the homes of many in the upscale community, it left mostly untouched one notable residence. Sitting just to the west of the mud flow zone, the mansion and expansive property of talk show host and TV network owner Oprah Winfrey remained.

Debris flow near Oprah's house
The expansive estate of television mogul Oprah Winfrey was spared the destruction that San Ysidro Creek caused a short distance to the east. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

Near the 101 Freeway

Downstream, spreading into a shallower, slower-moving layer, the mud infiltrated a neighborhood of wooded estates.

Houses inundated by mud and water
A wooded estate a few blocks north of the 101 Freeway is among those engulfed by the slurry. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times
Montecito houses inundated by mud and water
As it approached the coast, the debris flow slowed and spread into a layer of mud inundating prime real estate. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

At the ocean

Finally it dissipated over an agricultural field and inundated the 101 Freeway. Only a short tail continued on to foul the beach.

Debris flows into the ocean
At the end of its two­-mile rampage, mud came to rest on an agricultural field and the 101 Freeway. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

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