Mud, boulders and debris flowed relentlessly through Montecito and other areas of Santa Barbara County early Tuesday, Jan. 9, after a heavy rainstorm with brief but intense downpours. The roaring landslides swept away vehicles, trees and branches, buildings and people there, but on the North Coast, the rainfall didn’t cause any major incidents.
As of Wednesday morning, at least 13 people had been killed in Santa Barbara County, dozens more injured and at least two dozen were still missing.
Officials said the effects of the storm there were intensified by the recent, massive Thomas Fire, the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history. They had expected problems from the storm, and had ordered mandatory and voluntary evacuations in areas impacted by and near the burned terrain, which had been denuded of vegetation that could have helped hold the dirt in place.
But the reality Tuesday morning was shocking.
Highway 101 was closed in several directions, and Caltrans expected it would take some time to clear the muck, rubble and larger debris from the stretch near the Olive Mill Road exit. In photos of that area, 101 looked like a wide river of mud.
Caltrans said in a news release Wednesday afternoon that the highway was expected to remain closed until Monday afternoon from the junction of Highway 150 in Ventura County to Milpas Street in Santa Barbara County; motorists were advised to use Interstate 5 via Highway 126, instead.
Some other flooded and mud-blocked highways in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties also were closed.
After Santa Barbara County requested mutual aid from emergency crews in other areas, San Luis Obispo County sent at least 40 emergency responders plus the Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team.
By Wednesday morning, the Central Coast, which had expected to get clobbered by the same intense storm, appeared to have escaped serious impacts. Rainfall amounts overnight Tuesday were heavy, but didn’t appear to be hugely impactful, except in an area of Oceano where Caltrans closed Highway 1 briefly because it was flooded.
On Facebook on Tuesday morning, one Lodge Hill resident said the overnight storm and briefly intense rainfall had been “vicious, and the winds didn’t help. I didn’t get to sleep until 3:30 a.m., thinking we’re going to float away any time now.”
As usual, North Coast downpours varied from area to area. The gauge at Cambria Community Services District’s sewage-treatment plant on Park Hill recorded 1.8 inches of rain by 8 a.m. Tuesday morning. The Walter Ranch high on Santa Rosa Creek Road reported 2.7 inches. Bill Bianchi said his gauge about 5 miles inland on San Simeon Creek Road recorded 3 inches and Rocky Butte (about 9 miles up the creek road and 6 miles directly east of Hearst Castle) received 3.31 inches.
No storm-related emergencies had been reported to the Cambria Fire Department by early Wednesday, and no damage was reported at Hearst Castle, where tours proceeded normally Monday and Tuesday.
Power went out along Windsor Boulevard on Park Hill.
Some trees fell, including one that grazed the overhang of the 927 Beer Company building, at 821 Cornwall St. in the West Village. According to Facebook postings by 927 owner Aaron Wharton, two trees had fallen in that same area exactly a year earlier. He said of Tuesday’s incident, “if that tree was 20 feet taller it would have hit right where I was sitting.”
Aaron Linn seemed to summarize most of the storm’s effects on the North Coast, saying there’d been “2.5 inches of rain and 2.5 thousand leaves fallen” in his area.
The North Coast’s first major traffic accident of 2018 happened before the downpour. Shortly after 11 a.m. Monday, Jan. 8, a 2013 Toyota Corolla being driven southbound on Highway 1 rear ended a 2015 Kia Optima, causing the Kia to flip over and slide toward the ocean.
The accident happened on Highway 1 about 300 feet north of San Simeon Creek Road, according to Cambria Fire Department reports.
According to CHP reports, Kia driver Ralph C. Dean, 72, and passenger Paula A. Dean, 61, both of Upland, had major injuries from the accident and were taken by Cambria Community Healthcare District ambulance to the trauma center at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center.
The Toyota’s driver, 27-year-old Neil Logan McKinnon from McKinleyville, was treated for minor injuries at Twin Cities Hospital, and then arrested at the hospital by responding CHP officer David Agredano. He booked McKinnon into County Jail on a charge of driving under the influence; bail was set at $100,000. By Wednesday morning, McKinnon was no longer in custody.
Agredano said McKinnon’s Toyota “was traveling at a high rate of speed” when the accident happened. The officer estimated the Kia was doing 50 or 55 mph, and McKinnon was unable to slow down in time. “There was no sign of braking.”
The force of the collision “caused the other car to go off the highway into the dirt, where it hit a small embankment, flipped over and slid,” Agredano said. “It didn’t make it to the cliff, thank God, or it would have gone over” the high, steep bluff down to the shore.