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Fire, rain and maybe snow? Cave fire battle eases as chilly storm rolls in

Hillside charred by the Cave fire smolders in Santa Barbara County
A hillside charred by the Cave fire smolders in Santa Barbara County following a bout of rain overnight.
(Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

Firefighters battling a brush fire smoldering in the hills in Santa Barbara County got some help from Mother Nature overnight as a chilly storm brought rain to the Central Coast and doused the worst of the flames.

The Cave fire broke out Monday afternoon in Los Padres National Forest and was initially pushed downhill by erratic winds toward communities in Santa Barbara and Goleta, spurring evacuations. Firefighters were able to beat back the flames, protecting homes in the region, until the rain arrived to lend a helping hand shortly after midnight Wednesday.

The blaze has charred 4,367 acres and was 20% contained as of Wednesday morning, but fire officials say the containment area is likely to grow with additional rain in the forecast. The storm is expected to dump 1 to 2 inches of rain in the coast and valleys and up to 3 inches in the foothills and lower mountain elevations before subsiding Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

Fire crews are still working to extinguish some stubborn smoldering hot spots. But thousands of people who fled their neighborhoods as the fire approached were allowed to return to their homes before noon Wednesday, just in time to make their Thanksgiving preparations, said Mike Eliason, a Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman.

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The storm will drop snow levels so drastically — down to as low as 2,000 feet by Thursday — that the Cave fire burn area in the Los Padres National Forest might actually receive a dusting, forecasters said.

“Rain is still in the forecast, and the colder overnight storm actually brings a slight chance of snow near the higher elevation of the fire,” Eliason wrote on Twitter. “A sentence I’ll probably never write again.”

However, county fire officials issued a notice shortly after 10 p.m. Tuesday to residents living directly below the burn area in Santa Barbara and Goleta warning of the potential for dangerous debris flows.

Some residents in other parts of Santa Barbara County — including Montecito, which does not fall in the evacuation zone — received emergency alerts late Tuesday warning them about debris flows. Residents in those areas say it quickly resurfaced fears about the devastating mudslide that swept through the affluent coastal community in January 2018.

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Twenty-three people died and at least 130 homes were destroyed when the river of mud and rock flowed through Montecito during a rainstorm after the Thomas fire. After that, a Times investigation found that government officials did not heed decades-old warnings to build bigger basins that could have made the mudslide far less catastrophic — and that Santa Barbara County failed to thoroughly empty the existing basins before the disaster, drastically reducing their capacity to trap debris.

“We’re not greatly concerned about debris flows in burn areas at this point,” said Andrew Rorke, a senior forecaster with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

However, Rorke noted that conditions could change quickly if a strong cell or thunderstorm makes its way over a burn scar and lingers. “That would be the biggest threat to the burn area, but the odds of one hitting are very low,” he said.

When hills are verdant and healthy, vegetation can anchor the soil, even during heavy storms. But when the protective blanket of vegetation is burned off, hillsides become vulnerable to erosion, and slopes can come crashing down in a torrent of mud, rocks and dead branches, destroying homes.

Late Tuesday, television footage from Santa Barbara showed construction crews clearing dirt from debris basins. While evacuation warnings were lifted in the region Wednesday morning, officials urged residents to remain vigilant.

“If you feel uncomfortable or unsafe at any time, do not wait, leave the area and move outside the fire evacuation order and debris flow evacuation warning area,” the county wrote in a notice. “If you live or are near creeks and streams, be aware that waterways may experience high flows and can rise quickly.”


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