Why is Montecito cleanup taking so long? They’re preparing for the next storm

To clear the basin of boulders, crews are using three machines. One moves the rocks towards the second one, which breaks them into smaller rocks. The third loads up trucks to take them away.
To clear the basin of boulders, crews are using three machines. One moves the rocks towards the second one, which breaks them into smaller rocks. The third loads up trucks to take them away.
Carla Javier/KPCC

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Officials still can't say when people who were evacuated from their homes in Montecito will be able to return, or when the part of the 101 that was buried with mud, rocks, and debris will be reopened.

But even as those recovery efforts continue, officials are already preparing for whenever the next storm hits.  

At a local basin, the Cold Springs Debris Basin, crews are working around the clock to remove large boulders and mud before it rains again.

The idea is: if they clear the basin before the next rain, then hopefully it will catch whatever gets washed down. If they don't clear the basin in time and boulders and mud fill the basin back up again, it could overflow.

Crews at Cold Springs Basin in Montecito use excavator machines to move giant boulders brought there by the winter's first heavy storm.
Crews at Cold Springs Basin in Montecito use excavator machines to move giant boulders brought there by the winter's first heavy storm.
Carla Javier/KPCC

The boulders there now, washed down the hills by last week's storm, are big, and they are heavy. Many are the size of backpacks, but some are the size of cars. Moving them is no easy task.

To get them out, workers are using three excavator machines. One picks up big rocks and dirt. The second has a big spike called a breaker attached. It breaks the boulders into smaller pieces, then the third scoops those rocks up and puts it into a truck which carries the debris away. There are over 40 trucks driving up and down the dusty, winding roads, passing homes destroyed by the mudslides.

The whole process takes three hours roundtrip. 

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Clearing those basins is a priority because if there's another heavy winter storm, officials and experts think another mudslide could happen.

"The entire burn areas of the Alamo, Sherpa, Ray, Whittier, and Thomas Fires pose some risk for at least the remainder of this winter, and likely several more winters," Montecito Fire incident commander Kevin Taylor said at a Tuesday night community meeting. 

While crews continue to clear the debris, Taylor said experts are re-evaluating evacuation zones, and determining where the best places to send resources ahead of time, in case there is another storm.