Debris runoff on San Marcos Pass a new concern in the Whittier Fire Zone

Efforts underway to keep road open during storm

The Whittier Fire zone poses a new threat with winter rains on the way. (John Palminteri/KEYT photo)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - There's a new concern on San Marcos Pass prior to the winter storms where the Whittier Fire burned earlier this year.

Heavy rainfall could send ash and other debris over State Highway 154, and also into Cachuma Lake.

The fire began July 8.     It has been fully controlled at 18,430 acres. 16 residences were destroyed.

The initial burn zone was along the highway. Then the flames went through brush towards the top of Broadcast Peak and over to the coastal side of the mountain range.

"It is directly adjacent  to highway 154 and it's on steep slopes so it's certainly a reason to be concerned," said Gregg Hart with the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments.  SBCAG works closely with several agencies including CalTrans.

The Whittier fire zone has impacts for the State Department of Transportation, Santa Barbara County, the Los Padres National Forest, and the Bureau of Reclamation.

Hart says  even though weather forecasting is better and more accurate than ever, the impacts can be harsh either way.  "Things change in a minute and you don't really know so having equipment available and making improvements and making repairs as soon as possible is critical."

He says CalTrans will have heavy duty equipment standing by during storms to keep the roadways clear, but the fire zone will create unique challenges depending on the duration, location and the impact of the rainfall.

"It is basically making sure the culverts that go under Highway 154 are clear that they are available to pass any kind of rain that comes along with a normal storm event that will at least assure that the existing system is preserved for its full capacity."

No full scale reseeding effort or water diversion plan has been announced.

The Santa Barbara City Council recently was told a funding request to deal with some of the expected impacts from winter storms on the burn zone has been denied by the U.S. Forest Service.

Councilmembers also learned, a harsh winter with strong rains could send enough debris into the lake to reduce its capacity.  Upstream that happened in the 2016 Rey fire footprint that impacted the watershed for Gibraltar Reservoir, another key water source for the South Coast.

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