As a result of the Thomas Fire, hillsides around Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties have a different look.
What were once green rolling hills, lush canyons and steep barrancas are now blackened with soot and covered in ash. These open spaces are not only unsightly but dangerous in the event of a heavy rainstorm.
That danger became reality Jan. 8 in Montecito. Vulnerable hillsides ravaged by fire were hit by a violent cloudburst that dumped more than a half-inch of rain in 5 minutes. That amount of water coupled with burned hillsides sent tons of mud, trees, boulders and debris crashing down to the neighborhoods below, killing 21 people and destroying more than 100 homes.
The same tenuous situation — fire-ravaged hillsides vulnerable to mudslides – also was present in Ventura.
To prevent a Montecito-type event on its property, Aera’s environmental group worked to address the mudslide threat in the days and weeks following the fire. Team members developed an extensive erosion-control plan to stabilize the scorched hillsides of the oil field and ultimately protect life and property.
Post-fire defense mode
As part of the plan, Aera hired LSC Environmental Products, which specializes in preparing for and addressing erosion and other environmental challenges. LSC strategically applied EarthGuard and other patented products to key portions of the field’s hillsides to ward off erosion.
EarthGuard, a green-colored solution, does double duty. It seeds the hills to promote quick vegetation regrowth, and stabilizes the soil by adding wood fiber mulch and other components to essentially “glue” the hillside together to keep it intact. Together, the elements work to hold dirt, rocks and other debris in place in the event of heavy rains.
Aera also installed temporary protective barriers, known as K-Rails, on the northeast side of its property near the Las Encinas mobile home park. The concrete barriers, often seen along roadways, prevent mud from flowing into drainage ditches or neighboring property.
These efforts were not only good for Aera but comforting to nearby neighbors like David Shackle.
“We are very, very pleased with what Aera is doing,” said Shackle, who lives in the mobile home park. “When we looked up at those hills, we all thought of what happened at Montecito. We were all worried the next rainstorm could do the same here.”
Aera project manager Chris Majusiak and his team at Ventura have plenty of experience in preparing for and reducing storm-related damages. Years of planning helped them keep losses to a minimum last year when El Niño delivered more than 23 inches of rain–almost double the normal precipitation – to Ventura.
Developed under State Water Resources Control Board regulations, Aera’s extensive storm-water run-off plan for its Ventura field was key to keeping rain damage to a minimum. Managing storm-water run-off is critical since steep hillsides, ravines and sandy soil make the field’s terrain especially challenging.
Numerous streams and tributaries on the property feed into the Ventura River, which cuts through the field. During a storm, heavy rains can wash out the highly erodible hills, causing mud and debris to plug drainage systems. That can result in flooding onto Ventura Avenue and other public roadways.
“Additionally, we have deployed gravel-filled bags and straw waddles in strategic areas to further minimize erosion,” said Majusiak.
As part of the plan, Aera team members improved drainage and infrastructure systems to control erosion and sediment runoff during downpours. They fixed roads to redirect heavy flows and minimize potential flooding. They also planted native grasses and other shrubbery across parking lots and flat surfaces to redirect water flow. The vegetation impedes sediment runoff and provides places that aid in groundwater recharging.
While 2017’s record rains damaged Aera’s Ventura property, the impact was far less than would have occurred in previous years, with minimal production down-time.
“The key was preparation, strong infrastructure and good surveillance,” said Majusiak.