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After a Disaster:
My Tour of Montecito, California

(February 1, 2018)

From December 4, 2017, to January 12, 2018, a massive wildfire — the Thomas Fire — burned large parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties in Southern California. In the process, the mountains that look down on the cities in this area lost their vegetation and were left covered with ash.

Starting at 2:26 AM on January 9, 2018, a large, concentrated burst of rain — 2.34 inches, at times exceeding ½ inch (13 mm) in 5 minutes — fell on the mountainous area adjacent to Montecito, the wealthiest area in Santa Barbara County.

By 4:00 am, the combination of (1) a wildfire in a steep mountainous region, covered with (2) a large amount of earth, boulders, and dead trees, overlooking (3) a very wide alluvial fan (sediment deposited over many years by streams), and (4) a fast, intense rainfall, combined to create a massive debris slide (mud, rocks, boulders, trees) that traveled down the creek beds from the mountains into the homes of Montecito at high speed (20-30 miles/hour). There were many injuries, some deaths, and a large amount of destruction.

On the afternoon of Thursday, February 1, 2018, I drove around Montecito by myself for about an hour to take a look at the aftermath of the fire and rain. Here is what I saw and felt as I toured the area.

Most of Montecito is just fine. It looks almost the same as it always did, the biggest change being a patina of dust and dirt on the ground, on the plants and trees and in the air. Except for one person walking a dog, I didn't see any residents anywhere, only laborers cleaning as well as men with large machines digging and moving rocks and earth, and utility workers restoring electrical lines and gas pipes. Otherwise, the whole area — in fact, most of Montecito, although intact — looks abandoned and desolate without human life, like a large preternatural very expensive columbarium.

The damaged areas are those adjacent to the creeks, in particular Cold Springs, Hot Springs, and San Ysidro. I visited several trail heads, as well as places further downstream where these creeks crossed over or under streets. It is possible to see where the trail heads are. However, further up, along what used to be the bed of the creeks it is all gone, as are the trails themselves.

The small V-shaped arroyos are now much wider and deeper. An arroyo is "a steep-sided gully cut by running water in an arid or semiarid region" but now, what used to be creek beds winding through small arroyos have been violently transformed into wide, U-shaped concavities with sloping walls that were cut roughly and irregularly from the sides of the hills.

In the center of each creek bed, I could still see a small creek carrying water down from the mountains. What is different is that for many yards on each side of the water, the banks of the new canyon have been enlarged, swallowing the trails, and are covered with mud and spotted with a great many rocks and boulders — some quite large — as well as tree trunks, branches, and other debris.

It looks as if a giant auger with a 50-foot helical bit had worked it's way down the arroyos, grinding and flattening as it went, pushing water, dirt, boulders, and tree trunks ahead of it. Actually, this isn't all that far from the truth. The overwhelmingly fast and intense rain on January 9 created an numinous, unstoppable "debris slide" that moved down through the canyons at 40 feet/second, destroying everything in its path.

Nevertheless, the destruction was contained: confined to the areas immediately adjacent to the creeks, extending out on each side, 100-500 feet, depending on the elevation of the surrounding land. Within this area, I saw many empty places where houses used to be. A bit farther out, I saw houses and building that were partially damaged, along with a few abandoned cars, all of which was surrounded by several feet of mud. Away from the creeks, however, most everything looked as it was.

Adjacent to the creeks, what used to be paved roads is now covered with mud, so what I saw was wide dirt roads passing through areas of large expensive houses. It looked like the part of a third-world country where rich people live.

Old narrow, riparian creak beds were replaced by wide flats of mud and huge boulders moved at high speed with incredible force.

Everywhere, the old narrow, riparian creak beds have been replaced by wide flats of brownish-yellow mud, full of many, many rocks, some of which are huge boulders that look so large and heavy as to defy belief that they could actually ever be moved. But moved they were, at high speed with incredible force, pushing to the front and sides anything in their way including uprooted trees, buildings, cars, and bridges.

In these areas, there were many workers with trucks and demolition equipment, moving earth, rocks, and carting away massive amounts of debris and the detritus of destroyed buildings. Can you imagine, in your head, the trail heads at San Ysidro, Hot Springs, and Cold Springs? Well, most of it is gone. And nearby, what used to be inhabited, forested land is now empty, flattened, and brown that feels, at first, like nothing.

It looks like nothing because what we are used to seeing has vanished. I drove to what used to be the Cold Springs trail head and found myself alone in an eerie, silent, brand new landscape. However, the fresh water has woken up another part of the world. What were, only a few weeks ago, bare, ash-covered hills, are now turning green with grass and oxalis.

More generally, the houses, cars, landscaping, sidewalks, paths and roads adjacent to all the creeks have all disappeared. However, strangely enough, it all looks a lot more natural than it did before. In my mind's eye, when I think of what used to be there — and what still exists in the rest of Montecito, unharmed — I can see that the land did not want to be cut up, cultivated, graded, built upon, and tamed. Left to its own devices, nature has a way of showing us what is fundamentally unsound — such as building large estates with unnatural landscaping in flood-prone, fire-prone, alluvial plains.

Nevertheless, in spite of such insights, when the efforts of the hand of Man have been set aside, so quickly and so powerfully, it becomes a poignant, undeniable reminder that, in spite of our best efforts, everything is always changing and everything is temporary. I recall to myself, the words of the Roman poet Horace I remember first reading many years ago (book I, epistle x, line 24):

You may drive out Nature with a pitchfork, but she will return with a vengeance.

I must confess that I found myself affected deeply by what I felt, and that night I had a lot of difficulty sleeping. When I got out of the car at Cold Springs and looked across the street to what used to be a forest with a small creek running through it — now a wide flat plain of boulders and mud — I felt my back tighten involuntarily. Later, the images of what I saw that day, which would be innocuous and even pleasing had I seen them anywhere else, kept coming back to me as I drifted in and out of wakefulness, because I remembered what was there only a short time ago, and how it exists now only in memory, that is to say, not at all. In fact, in spite of my best efforts, I found myself so upset that, through the night, as I tried to sleep my dog Sadie, lying next to me, kept whining. I suppose she could feel my energy being disrupted.

I am guessing that what bothers us is that, in spite of all our efforts and wishes, such trenchant changes come so quickly and so violently that, in moments, Nature can destroy what took years for Man to build. It is as if, from time to time, Nature, in its magisterium, grasps impermanence, holds it up to us, and dares us to deny what must be.

To accept what must be and what already is can be difficult. But to do otherwise is nothing short of insane. To quote Horace one last time (book I, satire i, lines 48 and 117):

What odds does it make to the man who lives within Nature's bounds, whether he ploughs a hundred acres or a thousand?

We rarely find anyone who can say he has lived a happy life, and who, content with his life, can retire from the world like a satisfied guest.

Perhaps the real wisdom lies in not pretending that money and the "power" that comes with it, nor virtue, nor strength, nor all the wishes or beliefs that a human can conjure up within his mind, ever amount to very much in this world if we can't accept that we ourselves are transient.

Take a tour of the creeks of Montecito, and within the disturbance that you feel, perhaps you will also find a seed that, if planted and nurtured, may one day allow you to retire from the world like a satisfied guest.

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