This story was updated on Jan. 22.
Just two weeks after the flames of the largest wildfire in California’s modern history subsided, bringing relief to Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, a new disaster has struck. More than 5 inches of heavy rain fell last week on the scorched hillsides above the Santa Barbara community of Montecito, sending a river of mud, trees, rocks and debris cascading down.
As of Jan. 22, at least 21 people are confirmed dead, with two others missing, and dozens of homes have been destroyed. Helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard and National Guard as well as firefighters from Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties are continuing the search for anyone who may be trapped in the debris.
The historic San Ysidro Ranch, the world-famous resort and home of the Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning Stonehouse restaurant, has sustained heavy damage. According to local media reports, a gas line ruptured on the property during the mudslide, starting a fire that destroyed half the resort’s buildings. Several other buildings were buried in mud and debris. The resort staff evacuated the day before on the advice of state-issued mudslide warnings.
The Thomas fire burned for more than a week across the hills above Montecito, a wealthy community that is home to celebrities including Oprah Winfrey. After the flames were contained, state and local officials warned that hillsides denuded of vegetation could not contain or absorb heavy rainfall.
But few predicted the severity of the rains that began in the early hours of Jan. 9. A storm system dumped .54 inches in just five minutes, and 5 inches overall. Thousands of tons of mud and giant boulders poured down the hillside.
A week later, crews are working to clean up Highway 101, the main artery through the area. State officials had hoped to reopen it this week, but now say it will be closed for the foreseeable future.
Others are assessing damage in neighborhoods. A representative for the Montecito Inn says it will be closed while damage is assessed. The historic Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel, located where Montecito meets the Pacific, proved to be the end point for the debris flow. The Biltmore had closed its doors during the fires and had just reopened the day before the mudslides. “The safety and well-being of our guests and employees continues to be our top priority,” a representative told Wine Spectator. “As a result of recent flooding and mudslides, evacuations have been ordered across Southern California, including Santa Barbara County, and the resort will be closed until further notice."
The 29 wineries and tasting rooms that make up downtown Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail, less than two miles north of Montecito, suffered no apparent damage, but repercussions from the disaster can be felt throughout the area.
Dan Green, owner of Jaffurs Wine Cellars, said his business was already “down about 40 percent in December” due to the fires, and the mudslides and closure of Highway 101, the main thoroughfare from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, will further affect his business. While most of the urban wineries source grapes from vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley, most of their visitors arrive from L.A.
Jamie Slone of Jamie Slone Wines told Wine Spectator, “My tasting room is in the Presidio neighborhood, the historic district of Santa Barbara, and while we’re hearing helicopters and know that devastation is just on the other side of the road, you don’t see it here. Our tasting rooms are still open, but most of our visitors come from L.A. or Ventura counties, and there’s no one here. I did $59 yesterday.”
When asked what effect the Highway 101 closure would have on the county’s wine industry, a spokesperson for the Santa Barbara Vintners quipped, “Well, it can’t be good. A commute from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles right now involves traveling over the mountains from the coast to Interstate 5, then dropping down into L.A., a journey of about 4 or 5 hours. The airport here is open and I heard this morning that people were taking ferries from Ventura to Santa Barbara.”
But Drake Whitcraft, winemaker and owner of Whitcraft Winery, said via email, “Everything for me personally, like my house and winery and my immediate family, are OK, thankfully. But I know lots of people who have been displaced in this recent mudslide and lost everything, including loved ones. It’s a very hard time in Santa Barbara right now. I don’t really think that the revenue that was lost during the Thomas fire and will be lost because of the 101 being shut down matters compared to the loss of life.”