Worsening rain forecast prompts evacuations, mudslide fears across Southern California

In the days leading up to Southern California’s first major storm in nearly a year, Patricia Beckmann Wells didn’t waste any time.

She and her husband dropped sandbags around their rural Kagel Canyon home, near where the Creek fire swept through the mountains above Sylmar last month and forced them out for three days. They stocked up on gasoline and bought an extra battery for their generator. They loaded their pantry with nonperishable food: soup, cereal, candy and PediaSure for their 5-year-old son.

During this brush with Mother Nature, they were staying put.

“No more Motel 6 for us,” Beckmann Wells said, despite the evacuation order in effect in her neighborhood. “We’re expecting to just be trapped in the canyon. Everyone is just out getting supplies and holing up to stay here. Nobody wants to evacuate. They don’t see this as the threat the fire was.”

Vast swaths of Southern California were ordered Monday to evacuate — for the second time in as many months — as a powerful rainstorm released a deluge onto fire-ravaged slopes, triggering stern warnings from authorities about mudslides, flash floods and debris flows. Forecasters said the heaviest rainfall was expected early Tuesday.

In Los Angeles County, sheriff’s deputies went door-to-door Monday alerting residents about the orders in Kagel Canyon, Lopez Canyon and Little Tujunga Canyon. Those who refused to leave said they had to sign a form saying they understood the risk.

Residents in burn zones in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, along with an area of Duarte, were also ordered to leave, while those in Corona and Burbank burn areas were put on notice that they may have to if conditions worsened.

Whether residents planned to stay or go, all seemed to agree on one thing: the weather whiplash was exhausting.

“I’m tired of evacuating,” said Debra Saucedo, who was displaced from her Santa Barbara home for two weeks when the massive Thomas fire raged across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties last month.

On Monday afternoon, clothed in her pink raincoat, she dropped a row of sandbags outside her home and fled.

When a fire sweeps through an area, it not only burns the vegetation but damages the soil itself. The intense heat makes the soil unable to absorb water the way it normally would.

“I’ve seen floods here before, and it’s not a joke,” Saucedo said.

During the Thomas fire, Teri Lebow spent 12 days with friends in Los Angeles. When she returned to Montecito, her home was covered in ash and damaged by smoke. Now, she was told to leave again because of the rain, even though she said she doesn’t have hills directly above her home.

“It’s insane,” Lebow said. “I can’t seem to get my life kick-started.”

While her husband is traveling for work, Lebow, 65, had gardeners put sandbags around her home. On Monday night, she planned to head to the Four Seasons on Channel Drive.

The rain is of greatest concern in the mountains burned in the deadly Thomas fire, areas that are expected to see some of the heaviest downpours. The storm was initially forecast to produce as much as 4 inches of rain over the south-facing mountains and foothills, but forecasters Monday increased those totals.

Some communities — particularly within the Thomas fire burn area — could see as much as 9 inches of rain between Monday and Tuesday, with as much as 1½ inches of rain falling every hour, said Robbie Munroe, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. Debris flows begin at about a third of that rate, he said.

The slopes that provide such ample views of the California coastline are also forcing up moisture from the storm, further squeezing out heavy rain. The same topography is responsible for the dreaded “sundowner” winds that pushed flames downhill into homes last month.

Weather officials warned of “damaging” wind gusts that could top 60 mph Monday night into Tuesday morning, potentially causing downed trees and power lines. Thunderstorms may hit region Tuesday, bringing the potential for brief heavy downpours and small hail, the weather service said.

A major storm is also hitting Northern California, causing concerns about flooding in the wine country fire zone, where more than 10,000 homes were burned in October.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch Monday afternoon for the burned north San Francisco Bay Area that lasts through Tuesday morning.

Tchekmedyian and Mejia reported from Los Angeles, Livingston from Montecito. Times staff writer Joseph Serna contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

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