Rebuilding and Regeneration One Month After the Whittier Fire

Photo by Carolina Watts | The Bottom Line

Hannah Maerowitz
Staff Writer

After burning through 18,430 acres of land in three months, the Whittier Fire was declared 100 percent contained on Thursday, Oct. 5.

Spurred on by a heatwave, the fire’s cause remained unknown and investigation was still underway in July, according to Santa Barbara Independent. Regardless of the cause, the fire certainly had significant impacts by destroying 16 residences, 30 outbuildings, and damaging Camp Whittier and the Circle V Ranch Camp.  

The damaged structures will require rebuilding, but for the ecosystems that the Whittier Fire impacted, fire is part of a natural cycle of regeneration.

“These ecosystems evolved with fire. Fire is actually needed for some of these species to survive,” said Greg Wahlert, a research botanist and collection manager for the UCSB Natural History Museum, in an interview with The Bottom Line.

Fruit from manzanitas will fall into the soil and the soil will cover the seeds in that fruit. When the land is burnt, the seeds will become uncovered and will germinate with the first rains.

“The ecosystem tends to restore itself. After a fire, you’ll often see plants sprouting vigorously, even though the top part is burnt. Oak trees and manzanitas sprouting out of ash are not an uncommon sight,” Wahlert said.

However, hillsides stripped of vegetation by the fire are at a high risk of downstream flooding. Usually, several storms are needed for flooding to be a concern.

But since the watershed on these hillsides is gone, drains, waterways, and households could be disrupted after just one storm.

Approximately 400 households have been assessed as at risk for flooding, especially in Tecolote Creek, one of the few populated areas the fire impacted.

“The issue is that after a fire, people want someone to do something about it. In response, officials have tried techniques such as reseeding to stabilize the soil, but this process is expensive and there’s no evidence that it’s effective,” Wahlert said. “It negatively affects the biodiversity of these chaparral lands by introducing non native species of grass. The best thing we can do is to leave it be.”

Wahlert expects a terrific wildflower display in spring and will start studying how the chaparral plant community regenerates itself in December.

“It’s amazing how ecosystems restore themselves. I went to the Santa Ynez Valley a couple weeks ago and the ecosystem is already beginning to recover,” Wahlert said. 

The average precipitation in December in Santa Ynez is 3.35 inches, but it’s difficult to assess what that means for the rains this December. Weather is complex, dynamic, and depends on a variety of ever-changing factors, including today’s temperature, humidity, and winds.

If rains are heavy in December, infrastructure like Highway 154 and Lake Cachuma could both be impacted by flooding.

“Debris flow will come out and sweep people off that road,” said Tom Fayram, Deputy Director of the Water Resources Division for Santa Barbara County, in an interview with Noozhawk. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that road closed for periods of time over the winter.”

The same debris flow can go into the Santa Ynez River, clogging or otherwise damaging the Lake Cachuma dam and drainage system.

The Refugio Fire of 1955, which burnt almost 80,000 acres of land, was the last time a fire impacted the Santa Ynez Mountains so profoundly. Although the Whittier Fire has been destructive, all that is left to do is practice resilience and hope for light rain this winter.

The County of Santa Barbara has already began clearing fallen trees from creeks and plans on closing affected trails, installing trail drainage structures, and monitoring the effectiveness of these treatments to combat potential flooding.