The most critical hazards posed by climate change — extreme heat, flooding, debris flows, severe weather and wildfire — and the people, things and services they will place most at risk were outlined last week in a report to the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission.
Whitney Wilkinson from the Planning and Development Department’s Long-Range Planning Division gave commissioners a Jan. 12 briefing on the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and how it will be used in an update of the Comprehensive Plan’s Safety Element.
However, one commissioner said the county should be spending its money fixing roads that will pose a hazard in wildfires rather than studying the problem and delaying a potential solution “until 2024 or ’26 or whenever.”
“Are we spending a lot of money on these kinds of reports when we should go fix the road?” 5th District Commissioner Dan Blough asked Wilkinson. “What seems to me to be important is identifying those things that would create the largest loss of life. Should we not be able to create a solution?”
Wilkinson responded that the main focus is to identify strategies for dealing with the hazards that are identified in the assessment.
But Chairman and 1st District Commissioner Michael Cooney said the assessment could be valuable for the commission in identifying vulnerable projects and setting conditions on the ones it approves or subsequently blocks altogether.
Cooney said he would like to grab a copy of the report now, and Wilkinson said a link to it is posted on the project website, where a variety of other information is also available.
The Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment is also required by the state, as is the update of the Safety Element.
Thirteen hazard categories were identified in the assessment, with five of those considered critical to vulnerable communities, assets and services in the county’s unincorporated areas.
Critical hazards include episodes of extreme heat, which are expected to increase in both number and duration but will vary in degrees, depending upon the average temperatures at various locations.
For example, Wilkinson said, extreme heat on the South Coast would be temperatures above 87 degrees, while in the Cuyama Valley it would be anything above 101 degrees.
Other critical hazards include inland flooding from fewer days of rain but larger, less frequent storms riding atmospheric rivers; increasing acreage burned by wildfires; increasing numbers of debris flows from more intense storms over burn scars; and extreme weather that produces intense winds, lightning and hail.
The assessment identified 22 populations, 44 infrastructure assets, 26 buildings and facilities, 11 economic drivers, 12 ecosystems and natural resources and 23 key community services that will be most vulnerable to climate change hazards.
Among the findings:
• Acreage burned by wildfires will increase by 35% by 2100, and communities with single-access roads like Tepusquet Canyon, Mission Canyon and Hollister Ranch will be especially vulnerable.
• Extreme heat days will increase threefold by 2030 and eightfold by 2100, heavily impacting frontline communities like those with high outdoor exposure, who are income constrained, are living alone or have disabilities, are living in mobile homes or overcrowded households, and those with limited access to resources.
• Flooding and debris flow will damage or destroy transportation infrastructure, which will have cascading effects on emergency medical responses, transit service and evacuations.
Wilkinson said the next step in the process is planning ways to adapt to hazards, and while the results will be used in updating the Safety Element, she didn’t have a timeline for when that will occur.