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Emergency managers and first responders anticipated dealing with a second disaster in and near areas recently burned in wildfires. But the destruction is worse than expected in some places.
A worst-case post-wildfire disaster unfolded early Tuesday morning in parts of Southern California where heavy winter precipitation caused torrents of mud and debris to flow down from burn zones and into areas that had escaped the Thomas Fire’s initial destruction.
As of Tuesday evening, at least 13 people were killed in the weather disaster across Southern California, which hit an area east of Santa Barbara particularly hard. "It's going to be worse than anyone imagined for our area," Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason told the Los Angeles Times. "Following our fire, this is the worst-case scenario.”
One particularly hard-hit area was the coastal community of Montecito in Santa Barbara County, where several people were killed in the overnight mud- and debris-flows. One hard-hit neighborhood was adjacent to Montecito Creek, where the force of the mud was so strong that several homes were ripped from their foundations, according to KTLA-TV.
First responders performed hundreds of rescues on Tuesday, including for many motorists trapped in the mudflows, the Santa Barbara Independent reported. The Santa Barbara County Fire Department reported that at least 25 people were injured.
A section of U.S. Highway 101, the major coastal route connecting Northern and Southern California, was closed between Santa Barbara and Ventura due to the mudflows and debris cleanup. CalTrans District 5 announced that the highway will remain closed through at least Thursday night and advised the motorists avoid unnecessary travel through the area. Amtrak service was also disrupted along impacted sections of coastal tracks.
Heavy rainfall has fallen across parts of Southern California, which can create hazardous conditions in or areas downstream from wildfire burn zones when soil and debris can easily wash down scorched hills, ridges and canyons and turn into mudflows and landslides.
Although the much of Montecito escaped the Thomas Fire’s initial destruction, some neighborhoods were not so lucky with the subsequent muddy disaster that followed more than a month after California’s largest wildfire on record burned across parts of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.