Photos: Crews work around the clock to clean millions of pounds of debris after Montecito mudslides

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
January 27, 2018, 2:41:32 PM EST


Rescuers have worked tirelessly in the weeks following the deadly mudslides in Southern California to clean the millions of pounds of mud and debris that buried the region.

The mudslides followed shortly after an active month of wildfires in December. One in which the largest fire in California history raged: the Thomas Fire.

The massive December wildfires left burn scars that increased the likelihood of mudslides. Heavy rain on Tuesday, Jan. 9, triggered powerful debris flows and flash flooding that wreaked havoc in the region.

"Mud doesn’t just knock things over. For example, it didn’t just knock trees over, it uprooted them, it uplifted them out of the ground and carried them down. In some cases, it carried large vehicles for miles," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Ken Clark said.

At least 21 people have been reported dead and two remain actively missing. Over 100 homes have been destroyed and hundreds more damaged as a result of the powerful mud, according to a Santa Barbara County Incident Update.

"There are some pictures of houses that were covered up to the roof with mud and that’s how deep it got. And that is some of the reason why there has been so much loss of life. It isn’t just a little creek that brought a little mud in; it is a large hillside that gave way due to the loss of vegetation from the fire," Clark said.

CA mudslide 1-12-2018

A Cal Fire search and rescue crew walks through mud near homes damaged by storms in Montecito, Calif., Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)


Emergency personnel, many of whom have been working tirelessly since the wildfires, have been working around the clock in an effort to clean the debris and mud that lie in the path of the mudslides.

"Think how heavy mud can be. Now that it’s there, it is going really hard to get rid of, especially once it dries up, it's a huge problem. That’s why it’s taking so long to clean," Clark said.

The mudslides affected approximately 30 square-miles, 19,200 acres, of land in Santa Barbara County. The coastal town of Montecito was one of the hardest hit.

The local, state and federal governments are working together to clear hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of material, which includes mud, sediment, cobble, boulders, debris from trees and vegetation and more, according to Santa Barbara County Flood Control Engineering Manager Jonathan Frye.

It’s moving along; we’ve got a good start,” Frye said. “It is just an enormous amount of material that came down from the mountains.”

The cleanup of the public infrastructure is estimated to take weeks, while the cleanup of the private areas may take months or longer, according to Frye.

“The work that we’re doing is of urgent priority because we’re trying to ready our creeks and debris basins for the next rain event,” Frye said.

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Cleanup efforts are ongoing and still very active. The U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers (USACE) are working 24-hour days, setting up light stands at their work locations so they can continue when it gets dark out. Also, the local government works shifts from sunup to sundown.

It is next to impossible to put exact numbers on many of the stats surrounding the situation. How many pounds of mud and debris? How many people are working? How many cubic yards are covered?

“What we’re finding is that our initial estimates are low. Debris basins and creek channels that go from the basins down to the oceans are covered with about half a million cubic yards of material, and that’s just a really rough guess,” Frye said.

There are 11 debris basins being cleaned out by the USACE. Using one debris basin as an example, it will have three to five excavators, a couple front-end loaders, traffic control and up to 30 trucks hauling in and out.

Not every debris basin has the same amount of resources but multiply that one basin by 11 for a rough estimate, and that’s just the USACE resources alone. The other levels of government have their own resources and are also contracting out to local contractors, Frye said.

"It’s fair to say that there are hundreds of trucks, hundreds of personnel working those trucks and bulldozers and excavators and water trucks and street sweepers, it goes on and on. So, a lot of resources are being put forward to attack this," Frye said.

The critical issue that the community now faces is where to move all of this material.

“There are very limited areas to take this material to. The State Office of Emergency Services has lined up a disposal yard down in Ventura County Fair Grounds. A lot of material is going down there for initial disposal,” Frye said.

The issue with disposing the material in either Buellton or Ventura is that it’s quite a long haul, making the process drag on longer.

“There is an issue with the longer the haul, the more trucks you utilize, the more congestion there is, and so on. Disposal sites are one of the constraining issues that we have in quickly getting rid of this material,” Frye said.

Once at the Ventura County Fair Grounds and other initial disposal sites, the material is sorted by various components, such as mud and sediment or rock and boulder.

Some of that material, the sandy material, goes back to Santa Barbara County to be disposed at two beach locations. So far, 35 cubic yards of that material has been accepted at the beaches.

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While the disposal of this material raises safety concerns for the water supply, the situation is being monitored and warnings have been sent out.

There are monitors at both ends of the chains, not only on the truck side but also on the disposal end, the beach side, of the material, Frye said.

“We believe it is crucial to vitalize these beach disposal locations because it’s crucial that these debris basins, creek channels and bridges get unplugged,” Frye said.

These debris basins and creek channels have conveyance capacities once cleared that will be useful in the next rain event.

“We’re in a tough spot here of getting this stuff out. If we don’t get these channels and basins cleaned out by the next time there is a rainstorm then these chocked conveyance channels will kick flow out of channels and go on roads,” Frye said. "We will be in this situation that we have been trying to get ourselves out of."

Santa Barbara County Public Health Department has issued several warnings since the mudslide, due to elevated bacteria levels in ocean waters. Ocean water testing shows markedly elevated levels of Coliform bacteria along beaches from El Capitan to Carpinteria since Jan. 11.

For example on Jan. 20, the Public Health Department warned the public to avoid consuming recreational harvested raw shellfish caught in ocean waters where bacterial levels continue to be elevated.

Santa Barbara County released a list of safety and protection tips in the midst of the cleanup efforts and the re-population of the affected areas.

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