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As wet season approaches, mudslide threat looms once again over Montecito and other communities

As wet season approaches, mudslide threat looms once again over Montecito and other communities
Loreen Zakem walks her dog past one of the homes destroyed in a January debris flow along Montecito Creek. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

On the coastal highway leading into Santa Barbara, the signs of last year’s Thomas fire are starting to disappear: Scorched hillsides are no longer covered in black ash, and the palm trees that ignited like torches are sprouting new fronds.

Yet reminders of the mudslide that roared through Montecito a month later and killed at least 21 people are far more visible. The foothills that turned into rivers of mud and rock during a January storm remain brown, with only small patches of dried vegetation. Fallen trees still lie across shattered homes, and bulldozers busily scrape debris into ordered piles.

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Although many city residents insist they will never see such flood devastation again in their lifetimes, state and federal officials warned Wednesday that they could be proven dead wrong. Throughout the state, a series of record-setting wildfires have left hillsides and valleys stripped of vegetation and susceptible to collapse in heavy rains.

Now, as the wet season quickly approaches, they urged Californians to prepare for disaster and to heed government evacuation warnings.

“We have to recognize that there’s still tremendous potential for the death and destruction that we experienced less than a year ago,” said state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara). “Every person needs to have a plan.”

Jackson, who spoke at a news conference kicking off California Flood Preparedness Week, said Montecito was not immune.

“Those hillsides are simply pockmarked,” she said, pointing to the mountain range behind the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management. “There has not been that return of vegetation that we’d expect because the fire had burned so hot and the wax crust on it has made it very difficult for the vegetation to replenish itself.”

Montecito resident Curtis Skene told reporters he leaned this the hard way. His home, along with many of his neighbors’, was damaged in the Jan. 9 mud and debris flow. People in his neighborhood were told to evacuate just days before the mudslide, but most stayed.

“The fact is none of us should have been there,” Skene said. “You really all need to pay attention to what these individuals are telling you. It’s not rhetoric. It’s real.”

Fires don’t just destroy trees and brush, they also singe root systems that hold hillsides in place. When they burn extremely hot, they create a waxy topcoat on the soil that repels rain and sends water cascading downhill where it can dislodge heavy boulders or clog drains and bridge passageways with mud and debris.

There have been more than 6,000 fires on local, state and federal lands in California over the last year, meaning debris flows can hit virtually anywhere if there’s heavy rain, officials said.

“Anyplace that has a burn scar, even if it’s a small fire, can pose a risk,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Jimmy Taeger. “The first year is the most at-risk. And as we get into the second year it becomes a little less risky. By the third year it’s really not much of a concern.”

In Southern California, areas of Orange County affected by the Holy fire are of particular concern because that fire affected so many people, Taeger said. The Cranston fire burn scars near Idyllwild also pose a potential danger if there’s too much rain, he said.

Likewise, massive fire scars are putting residents in Lake, Mendocino and Shasta counties in the path of potential disaster, said Michelle Mead, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento. Those areas were hit by the Mendocino Complex and Carr fires, respectively, this summer. The vegetation hasn’t had much time to recover, and a heavy band of rain — along the lines of a half-inch to an inch an hour — could be enough to send mud cascading into rivers, creek drainages and debris catch basins.

“There is this kind of misconception. They think, ‘The fire is out so I’m good,’ or, ‘It’s five miles away and I’m good,’” Mead said. “We always tell folks winter season is flood season in California. It’s really a community approach. Make sure the drainages aren’t in a hazard zone. If you’re near a recent burn scar, you should definitely be listening to community leaders and going to community events.”

In the days leading up to the storm in Montecito, authorities issued widespread evacuation orders that only 1 in 10 residents heeded. They warned of mud flows reaching homes on the edge of the foothills but did not anticipate the once-in-500-years storm cell that developed and sent a wall of mud and boulders charging into the Pacific Ocean. Most of the dead were under voluntary, not mandatory, evacuation orders

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Surprisingly, the question of whether to listen to authorities when they suggest evacuation is still a matter of debate for some Montecito residents.

“Me and my wife disagree on that,” said Niall Kelly, 52, who was having lunch in Montecito Village Wednesday and has lived in the city for four years with his family. “I don’t think we’ll ever experience something like that again in our lifetimes.”

When the mudslide hit, Kelly was away on a business trip but his wife and daughter were home. Kelly said his family will leave under mandatory evacuation orders, but he would opt to stay if they were only recommended. His wife, however, would prefer to leave because of what she saw.

Kelly, like others in Montecito, said it appears extreme weather events are occurring with more frequency. They just don’t think a storm that strong will hit their community again.

Tamara Riley, 57, who was blocked from her home off Toro Canyon Road for a month after the slide, said she wasn’t sure whether she and her husband would evacuate if it was suggested.

“It would probably depend on what the storm looked like. My husband pays attention more than the average Joe,” she said. “I don’t know if we would leave this time. We now have multiple ways out.”

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