National Plant Services

Mudslides and Wildfires: Montecito, California Needed Immediate Aid when Back-to-Back Disasters Impacted their Community

Emergency pipe cleaning projects are never usually routine and this one in Montecito, California, which just experienced horrific fires and mudslides in recent months, was not your typical project.


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A perfect storm of epic disasters had rendered the Santa Barbara County community devastated. You’ve probably seen video of the sad aftermath of these back-to-back disasters; however, what you may not have realized was the toll they had on the community’s underground infrastructure.

Enter Long Beach, California-based National Plant Services, which was called in by the Montecito Sanitary District to do an emergency pipe cleaning and condition assessment after the area was inundated with unprecedented mud and debris. The crews were also to cap laterals from houses that were washed away or red-tagged, repair broken lines and assist the District crews, as needed.

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“The lines were packed full of mud and debris,” explains National Plant Services business development manager Jeff Garcia. “They wanted us to first remove all the mud and debris and clean the manholes and sewer lines. Then, we needed to do a condition assessment of the structures so they knew what they would have to fix so when the residents eventually returned, they would be able to use their water and sewer lines.”

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National Plant Services, part of Carylon Corp., is located about 100 miles from Montecito and is a provider of turnkey services in California and offers a full line of sewer condition assessment, rehabilitation and repair.

Over approximately a one-month period, National Plant Services crews cleaned and inspected more than 145,000 lf of sewer pipe, removing more than 200 tons of mud and debris.

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All the damage was a result of the devastating wild fires and mudslides that took place in December 2017 and January 2018.

The affected area was the City of Montecito — the wealthy enclave in Santa Barbara County and home to many celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and Rob Lowe. This small, tightknit community, with a population of less than 10,000, was first impacted by a massive wildfire in December 2017, called the Thomas Fire due its origin near St. Thomas Aquinas College, located 50 miles east of Montecito. The wildfire was just one of a number of wildfires that ravaged Southern California in December.

On Jan. 8, a series of heave rainstorms occurred in Montecito, as well as other areas, causing massive and unusual amounts of runoff and erosion in the Los Padres National Forest, steep mountains and slopes adjacent to and north of Montecito. The Thomas Fire had rendered the areas devoid of vegetation, reducing the amount of water taken up by plans or absorbed into the soils and removed the forest canopy, exposing the areas to the erosive power of high intensity rainfall.

“There wasn’t any brush or anything left to hold back the landscape,” Garcia says. “Millions of tons debris came sweeping down.”

National Plant Services was called in on Jan. 12 and mobilized its crews on Jan. 17 to begin a 24/7 operation using four crews. By Jan. 20, Garcia had 17 techs working 12-hour shifts. The vitrified clay sewer lines were mainly 8 in. in diameter, with some as big as 24 in. The crews used two Vacall jet/vac combination units with 80 gpm pumps and two Vactor jet/vac combination units with 100 gpm pumps to clear out the lines. Crews then used four CUES CCTV trucks to video inspect the lines afterward to note any damage.

“Definitely a dirty job,” Garcia says. “Surprisingly the lines were in pretty decent condition. We did a lot of cleaning. Every day, our trucks made four to five trips a day to the District’s drying beds at their facility.

“After we cleaned everything out and did our assessment, there were probably 20 locations where we had a 5 rating that needed immediate attention, caused from the flooding.”

National Plant Services

Over approximately a one-month period, National Plant Services crews cleaned and inspected more than 145,000 lf of sewer pipe, removing more than 200 tons of mud and debris.

Project Challenges

The emergency project posed a number of challenges for the National Plant Services crews, notably that Montecito was without power for the first few nights, forcing the crews to set up their own generators and light stands to illuminate the work areas. Gaining access to the work site was also a challenge.

“The California Highway Patrol had the roads closed and we had special access to get in. All of the roads were covered in mud and some were just gone,” Garcia says. “[The roads] had just recently been scraped down to making driving possible by bulldozers and wheel loaders that lined the streets. There were boulders the size of cars laying in the streets, full-size fallen trees lining what used to be driveways. There was no water service on the north side of town so the water trucks had to get water on the south side of the 101 freeway to provide water for the jet vacs.”

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Due to the amount of mud and debris they were working in, all crewmembers wore air filter masks for their safety.

The amount of debris inside the lines was unprecedented for National Plant Services. “We found 8-in. main lines that had 7-in. rocks in them,” Garcia says. “Manholes were full of mud, which meant the lines were full of mud, as well. We inspected approximately 60,000 lf over a six-day period and all together, we inspected 100,000 lf.”

Of the 200-plus tons of mud and debris cleaned from the lines, Garcia notes that “You wouldn’t get that amount out of a million feet of lines if you were just cleaning a regular project. This was definitely out of the ordinary.”

Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology.