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Flightline Restaurant Plans Send Thomas Fire to Back Burner

And just like that, we’ve moved on.

After three weeks dominating Noozhawk’s traffic, and my weekly Best of Bill column, the intensity of the Thomas Fire has died down to mere embers.

My friend, Warren Butler, knocked the blazes out of the No. 1 spot on Noozhawk’s Top 5 most-read stories of the past week, according to our Google Analytics. And he did it in less than a 48-hour news cycle.

We haven’t lost all interest, however. The Thomas Fire still accounted for three places in the Top 5 and 14 in the Top 25 among the 108,306 of you who were reading us this past week.

And, as you know, December will end up being our best month for readership in Noozhawk’s 10-year history. It already is, actually. To date, we’ve piled up 932,469 readers this month, and nearly 1.9 million pageviews, or stories read. Those numbers are staggering.

Thank you for your confidence in us. Happy new year. Go Clemson!

1. Warren Butler to Recast High Sierra Grill as Aviation-Themed ‘Flightline’ Restaurant

Since the Elephant Bar Restaurant closed in 2013, the site at 521 Firestone Road has had a rough go.

Located on property owned and governed by the Santa Barbara Airport, the restaurant sat empty for months before High Sierra Grill was approved to renovate the sprawling building and moved in. Although a step up from the Elephant Bar, on a good day High Sierra Grill was underwhelming

Earlier this year, the company’s ownership team brought on Warren Butler, a local restaurateur, as managing partner. The former owner of the now-closed Marmalade Café in La Cumbre Plaza immediately set out to turn things around.

Butler, owner of Butler Event Center in Old Town Goleta and Marketing Express, has since bought the restaurant and intends to transform the place into an aviation-themed experience called The Flightline, which is far more fitting for the site than a jungle or a snow-capped peak.

“I always thought this would be a great place for an aviation-themed restaurant,” he told our Josh Molina. “And it’s not only going to be about aviation. It’s going to be about the history of the airport.”

To make that happen, he’s partnered with John Blankenship, a retired Navy pilot who runs the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation. Blankenship will be lending military airplanes, photographs, aviator gear and other memorabilia, much of it from his own personal collection.

Butler says the food quality, service and consistency will be improved under his management, and he vows to provide the best drinks in town, on par with local legends Joe’s CaféThe Tee-Off Restaurant & Lounge and Harry’s Plaza Café.

“People like a good drink,” he said. “They don’t like a corporate pour.”

The Flightline is still taxiing but Butler expects it will take off in the next month or so.

2. With Firestorms Now Past, Santa Barbara County Faces New Storm ThreatClick to view larger

Dig in. (Santa Barbara County Flood Control District photo)

The Thomas Fire was still a thing when crews from the Santa Barbara County Flood Control District set out to clear debris basins in canyons across the eastern end of the South Coast.

Chaparral may not be much to look at, but it does a fairly good job of slowing and absorbing rainwater, even during torrential downpours. As a result, a surprising amount of that water ends up percolating down into groundwater tables.

Thanks to the scorching flames of the massive wildfire, there’s very little chaparral left on mountain slopes between Montecito and the Ventura County line. Until it grows back, consider every square foot of the denuded hillsides as a likely source of downstream flooding.

Think that’s improbable? Ask El Capitan Canyon Resort on the Gaviota coast.

On Jan. 20, major flooding below the Sherpa Fire burn area swept away a half-dozen cabins and nearly two dozen vehicles at the glampground across Highway 101 from El Capitán State Beach. Two people were rescued from the soupy debris; fortunately, no one was hurt.

According to my friend, Tom Fayram, the county’s water resources deputy director who oversees flood control projects, crews started at the debris basin in Gobernador Canyon, at the eastern end of the Carpinteria Valley, and have been working west through Santa Monica, Arroyo Paredon, Toro, Romero and San Ysidro canyons.

Each of the canyons has a debris basin, formed by a small dam, that is intended to slow the flow of storm runoff. As the cascading water loses momentum, debris and silt drop out and are caught behind the dams, which allow the water to continue unimpeded and with far less threat to neighborhoods below. Trust me, they work.

Obviously, however, they’re only effective when empty. County crews did their regular maintenance on the basins in the fall, but are back at it in advance of winter storms. That we hope are on the way.

“They were really built for fires,” Fayram told our Tom Bolton. “Now our standard operating procedure is we will totally clear them out and get them ready for inflow and debris.”

3. Thomas Fire Burns Its Way Into Record Books as California’s Largest Wildfire

Coming up hoses. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

On its 19th day, the Thomas Fire claimed its place in California history as the largest wildfire on record — officially.

The blaze, which erupted Dec. 4 near Santa Paula, had grown to 273,400 acres by Dec. 22, eclipsing the 2003 Cedar Fire that burned 273,246 acres in San Diego County.

As of Dec. 28, the Thomas Fire was up to 281,893 acres burned, with authorities reporting that it was 91 percent contained.

The fire destroyed more than 1,000 residences, most of them in Ventura County, and was responsible for two deaths: a Santa Paula woman fleeing the flames the night of Dec. 4 and San Diego County firefighter Cory Iverson, a 32-year-old CalFireengineer who died in the line of duty Dec. 14 near Fillmore.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

The Thomas Fire has miles to go to top the 1899 Santiago Canyon Fire, which burned an estimated 300,000 acres in Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties and is — unofficially — the largest fire in state history.

4. After Long Recovery, Alyssa Nuño Eager to Put ‘Microburst’ Memories and Injuries Behind HerClick to view larger

Alyssa Nuño, warrior woman. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Alyssa Nuño was at Santa Barbara’s West Beach with her family the afternoon of Sept. 3 when a freak “microburst” storm struck the waterfront area.

As everyone scattered to take cover from the fierce 80 mph winds, the 16-year-old Dos Pueblos High School junior became separated from the group. After the storm had passed, family and friends searched frantically for the teenager who had been there moments before.

They found her 15 minutes later, stunned and buried under a kayak and other debris. That was the good news.

The bad news is that she had suffered catastrophic injuries, including head trauma, a brain injury, numerous broken bones and a loss of peripheral vision. She was rushed by American Medical Response ambulance to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, then flown to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Our Brooke Holland caught up with Alyssa earlier this month, during her physical therapy session at Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital. She’s doing remarkably well, and expects to be back in school Jan. 2 when her Dos Pueblos High classmates return from the Christmas break.

“Everything is going good,” she said. “I’m ready to go to school. I’m getting my energy back. I’m not as tired.

“When I first came home, I would nap after therapy because I’d be so tired.”

Her mom, Sandra Alamillo, described the emotional roller-coaster the family went through while trying to care for the injured teen.

“To see her suffering was hard,” she acknowledged.

Alyssa is back at home now, however, after nearly two months in the Los Angeles hospital.

“God heard our prayers,” Alamillo said.

5. Ray Ford: Thomas Fire Causes Serious Damage to Front Country TrailsClick to view larger

Smooth view from atop Cold Spring Canyon above Montecito. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

With majestic mountains rising right in our back yard, miles of well-maintained trails and some of the most picturesque views in California, it doesn’t take much to get locals to take a hike.

That will be a lot more difficult in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire, which destroyed many of the most popular front country trails. In fact, the damage is so great on some of them that they’re likely to be unusable for the foreseeable future.

Our Ray Ford, who probably spends more time hiking Santa Barbara County than anyone, has been checking out the trails above us, and his early analysis is not a pretty one.

The worst hit were the Buena Vista, Cold Spring, Hot Springs, Romero and San Ysidro trails, which were swept by the ferocious firestorm and are now blocked by downed trees and brush, and covered by rocks and loose material.

Most troubling are the trails’ crumbling base paths, which may take years to repair. And it hasn’t even rained yet.

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