When I set out for Kern County on Friday morning I was looking forward to taking the 166 from Santa Maria to Taft. My original plan to take the 33 up and over Ojai and into Maricopa was scratched due to the mudslides caused by flash flooding a day earlier. The downpour also triggered mudslides that closed Interstate 5 overnight, the main artery linking Los Angeles to the Central Valley.
From Santa Barbara, taking the 166 instead of the 33 added an hour to the drive, but I headed out before sunrise and made it to Taft in three hours. Coming home was a different story. A flash flood warning was issued for the 166 due to thunderstorms. But, since I5 was just reopening with escorts, I took my chances on the 166.
I didn’t get very far before receiving a text alert from KEYT News saying that a ‘flash flood was reported in Cuyama Valley… with many cars stuck in the mud.” I had planned to stop for dinner at the Cuyama Buckhorn, a newly-reopened vintage roadside saloon/restaurant/motel. So, I pulled in to the restaurant and asked if anyone knew the location of the mudslides. The bartender said he didn’t but, that firetrucks with sirens blaring had zoomed by about five minutes ago. He said that meant that the emergency workers may soon be shutting down the road.
I skipped my plans for dinner & a beer and hopped back in my car to try to get through on the single lane road before it became impassable. But, I was too late – ten minutes up the road I hit stopped traffic. And, the line of cars and drivers were stranded there for two hours. CHP SUVs and an ambulance or two roared by, what looked like a Sheriff’s helicopter and an airplane (possibly KEYT News getting aerial footage?) but drivers down below were stuck not knowing what was happening.
KNX NewsRadio out of Los Angeles came in sketchy on my radio and I could hear traffic reporter (and my friend) Denise Fondo mentioning the trouble on the 166, but she had the location wrong (the CHP must have shut down the 166 back at the 33 because the road was impassable). I tried for an hour to call the KNX Traffic Line with no luck since my phone had no signal. Then I noticed in my rear view mirror that the driver behind me was talking on his phone. He loaned it to me to call the radio station to report our traffic tie up.
Big kudos to Fondo for taking the time to look into the reason for our standstill – even though the 166 is way outside of the Los Angeles metro area (still, you have lots of KNX listeners in Santa Barbara County, KNX!). Fondo was busy enough reporting on an extra busy Friday afternoon commute – with the newly-opened I5, and an hours-long closure of the 101 in both directions through Studio City because of a suicidal man threatening to jump. So, thank you Denise!
As it turned out, Thankfully, it turned out, no cars were stuck in the mud, which covered the roadway and what appeared to be a bridge near Spanish Ranch. After sitting still for two hours, cars started moving through the muddy area. By this time it was dark, and what a beautiful night in Cuyama. Clear skies, a bright crescent shaped moon and stars.
An hour later, there was another slowdown merging onto Hwy 101 in Santa Maria. But the real gridlock came getting into the city of Santa Barbara. The 101 was wall to wall big rigs. It’s amazing what the closure of one major freeway (Interstate 5) can do. My expected three hour drive home from Kern County turned into a six hour ordeal! Boy, was I happy to (finally) get home to Santa Barbara.
Let’s hope that with the I5 reopened, the truckers will be heading for the Grapevine and leaving the 101 to the cars.
Keep in mind, the CHP & Caltrans says it could be days before the 58 (another popular route for truckers) is cleared of debris and reopens. According to Caltrans QuickMap, Hwy 33 is open at the Wheeler Gorge Campground (as of Saturday morning).
This ordeal has me making sure I have some warm clothes, sturdy shoes, extra water and some kind fo food (nuts, power bars) in the trunk, to be prepared for an emergency.
NOTE: There could be more flooding on Hwy 166 Saturday – A flash flood watch is in effect through tonight for the Cuyama Valley as well as the Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo & Ventura County mountain areas.