Posted by: James Wapotich | January 11, 2016

Trail Quest: 1969 Floods

In January 1969 California saw a series of storms that brought 10 continuous days of rain to the southland. 1969 was not the wettest year on record, that distinction goes to 1997-1998 with its El Niño storms. 1969 experienced only a moderate El Niño, however history has shown that while El Niño can bring higher than average rainfall, not every El Niño year brings record rainfall. And while flooding is often associated with heavy rains, not every year with heavy rainfall brings with it major floods. Nevertheless, the events from the 1969 winter storms can serve as a cautionary tale as we anticipate what is being predicted as the strongest El Niño year on record.

On January 18, 1969, the first of two 5-day storms made landfall along the coast of California. The rain for Santa Barbara that day was around 1-2 inches. The county to date had seen a only modest amount of rain for the year. The next day, however, the rain started coming down heavier, bringing with it flash floods and the first tragedy associated with the storms.

On Sunday afternoon, January 19, seven teenage boys decided to test out their homemade raft on rain-swollen Arroyo Burro Creek near La Cumbre Plaza. The boys put in near the YMCA where strong currents grabbed the raft. Four of the boys jumped off, while the other three were swept downstream towards the 426-foot long cement tunnel that carries the creek under Calle Real, the railroad tracks, and Modoc Road. Two of the boys were able to make it ashore and call out for help, while the third, Mark Williams, was carried through the tunnel and drowned.

Members of Los Padres Search and Rescue Team arrived on the scene and two of them entered the tunnel, one from each end, in an effort to find Williams. They met midway on separate catwalks. When team member Don Buck attempted to jump across to the other catwalk he was swept away in the rising water, pulling in Rick Mohun, who was holding the safety line attached to Buck. Two more team members, Denis Huestis and Donald Thompson, tried to help and all four were swept downstream through the tunnel. Buck was pulled out, but failed to respond to resuscitation. Mohun and Thompson made it out safely, but Huestis drowned.

Meanwhile, a second tragedy was unfolding in the backcountry. Over the weekend six boys from Canoga Park, Bobby and Ronny Cassol, Danny and Eddie Salisbury, Frank Donato, Frank Ruah, and one adult, Robert Samples, were camping along the Sespe River. They had driven in along the unpaved road back to Sespe Hot Springs when the rains hit. The road was later closed to vehicles in late 1970s.

Realizing the need to leave they headed out but their vehicle got stuck in the mud near Coltrell Flat, about 13 miles from Lion Campground, near where the Piedra Trailhead is now. There they met Scott Eckersley, who had come in Friday, and also got stuck trying to leave on Saturday. Eckersley, who had stayed in his car for shelter, spotted the other vehicle in the distance and went over to investigate. On Sunday, Eckersley suggested that they break into the cabin at Coltrell Flat and wait out the storm there, which they did.

With the boys reported overdue and their location unknown, Ventura County Sheriff’s Department was contacted and deputies Gary Creagle and Chester Larson were dispatched on Monday, January 20, to Lion Campground. With the river swollen and conditions that prevented flying into the area, Larson suggested using one of the 15.5-ton bulldozers from the nearby Navy Seabee Training Center in Rose Valley to search for the stranded campers and bring them back out. The Seabees maintained the dirt road back to the hot springs as part of their training program and if anything could get there and back it would be one of the large bulldozers. Chief Equipment Officer Robert Sears of the Seabees volunteered to drive the bulldozer. Forest Service Ranger James Greenhill, who was familiar with area, also offered to ride out.

The rescue party of Larson, Sears, and Greenhill, after fording close to a dozen river crossings, arrived at Coltrell Flat around 7 p.m. to find the campers inside the cabin. The decision was made to leave the cabin and return to Lion Campground.

The group traveled upriver along the road, fording each crossing as before, making it as far as Oak Flat Camp around midnight. However, by this time the torrential rains had steadily raised the level of the river. During the next crossing, while passing through the eight-foot deep water, the river flooded over the top of the hood and the engine stalled out. Unable to start the engine, the group remained stuck in the middle of river, cold water flowing over them, until one by one the river swept them off the bulldozer and into the rushing water. Eckersley was the last to be swept away and was the sole survivor.

When the water took Eckersley, it slammed him against a rock and he blacked out. He later regained consciousness and found himself at the edge of the river. He pulled himself ashore and dug a small hole, covering himself with mud and rocks for shelter, and waited out the night still in pain. The next morning he hiked about four miles back to some abandoned vehicles he’d seen on the way out to seek shelter and was rescued later that day by helicopter.

Elsewhere, the same heavy rains that brought tragedy to the backcountry, were causing all too familiar events of overflowing creeks, mudslides, flooded streets, road closures, and power outages. The rains were also rapidly filling our local reservoirs. On January 20, Gibraltar Reservoir was the first to overflow, having risen 15 feet the day before. The next morning, Jameson Reservoir, having risen 20 feet the previous day, overflowed.

On January 23, there was a lull in the weather as the first storm played out. The county saw modest rainfall that day and some clearing skies, but more rain was on its way. The next day, the second 5-day storm system hit an already saturated California, compounding the flood damage from the previous storm.

Carpinteria was hit the hardest. During the first storm, 39 families had been forced to evacuate. When the second storm hit all three major creeks, Santa Monica, Franklin, and Carpinteria Creeks, overflowed, flooding much of the town and leaving behind silt-laden water, mud, and debris. 1,000 of the 7,000 people living in Carpinteria were evacuated.

Many of the creeks originating in the Santa Ynez Mountains overflowed causing flood damage to the nearby neighborhoods. Heavy rains loosened boulders weighing as much as 30 tons, that then rolled down the canyons, clearing everything in their path and creating debris that would then jam up at various bridges. San Ysidro Creek, for example, backed up at the East Valley Road bridge sending water into the adjoining neighborhoods.

On January 25, Governor Reagan declared the county a disaster area as more rain continued to fall. The next day, the Santa Barbara News-Press headline read “Wettest January Since 1916 Douses Santa Barbara County”. The January rainfall total was surpassed only by the 1995 storms.

The record, however, for the most amount of rain in a 24-hour period still belongs to 1969. On January 26, Jameson Lake recorded 16.31 inches of rain. The heavy rain however brought with it more tragedy. The already overflowing reservoir washed out the caretaker’s cabin below the dam killing the caretaker, William Brooks.

The raging waters also fueled unfounded rumors that Gibraltar Dam was going to break under the strain of more water flowing through its spillway than it was designed to handle.

Further downstream along the Santa Ynez River, residents along Paradise Road trying evacuate from the rising waters were cut off when the bridge across Los Laureles Creek was washed out. 120 residents were then airlifted out by helicopter.

Those same rising waters caused Lake Cachuma to overflow on January 25. When the flood gates were opened the river grew to a 600-foot wide torrent, flooding various parts of the valley. In Lompoc, the sewage treatment plant located next to the river was flooded, along with 4,000 acres of farmland.

Then, on January 28, just as the rain was starting to play out Santa Barbara was struck by a second disaster. The blowout at Platform A occurred, which released 80,000-100,000 barrels of oil over the next several months into the Santa Barbara Channel. It was the worst oil spill at that time and helped lay the foundations for the modern environmental movement.

February brought still more rain and flooding, however by comparison the damage wasn’t as bad in Santa Barbara County. Ventura County, which also saw major flooding during January, was hit harder by the February rains. On February 25, around 2:30 a.m. one of the levees along the Santa Clara River gave way. The river changed course and flowed out through the Ventura Marina. 300 boats were damaged or completely destroyed. No lives were lost and a number of boats were spared by being in dry dock to avoid damage from the oil spill. According to engineers on site, if the rain and erosion had continued the river would have likely returned to its ancient course through downtown Oxnard.

In our local backcountry, the rain also left its mark. In addition to trails being washed out, four trail camps were destroyed and later rebuilt or relocated. Upper Bear at the headwaters of Sisquoc River was washed out, as was Water Canyon Camp further downstream. Along Manzana Creek, both Fish and Coldwater Camps were destroyed by flooding. All four camps were in the burn area of the 1966 Wellman Fire.

There are many lessons from these years of heavy rains and flooding, and it is a testament to the work of our first responders and city planners that those lessons have been integrated into our disaster preparedness programs. That awareness has in turn helped to reduce the overall impact of subsequent storms and the damage they can create.

The article appears in section A of today’s edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

A more detailed account of the Sespe River Tragedy can be found here,


  1. James: One of your most gripping articles. Nature is indeed wild. Thank you. Allan

  2. Good info re El Ninos. Always enjoy your articles. RW~

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