First in series of winter storms causes traffic crashes but few other problems in Southern California

The first in a series of winter storms that will soak Southern California through next week triggered the expected rain-related traffic issues, including one fatal crash Saturday morning, but otherwise left the landscape mostly unscathed, officials said.

Burn scars from the recent Woolsey and Hill fires in Ventura and Los Angeles counties received more than a half-inch of rain through the morning but it fell at such a light, steady pace that it did not trigger any serious mud or debris flows, the National Weather Service said.

California Department of Transportation workers are patrolling the Malibu area, with more crews on standby in case mud or rocks tumble onto Pacific Coast Highway, said Caltrans spokesman Marc Bischoff.

Storms last weekend sent mud from the burned landscape of the Woolsey fire onto the highway, trapping three cars and shutting down traffic for two days.

This weekend, straw wattles have been installed along the road’s shoulders to divert runoff and fencing has been erected on nearby mountain passes to limit rock falls and mudslides, Bischoff said.


Despite those efforts, a small mudflow did briefly close the coastal route Saturday morning. Bischoff said drivers should avoid PCH if they can during the next week of storms.

“That whole stretch … is still susceptible because of the Woolsey fire,” he said.

No serious issues were reported in Santa Barbara County near the Thomas fire burn area. As more time passes, it will take increasingly heavier downpours to trigger mudflows there, experts say.

“It’s a good, typical winter storm; we just didn’t have constant inundation,” said weather service meteorologist Tom Fisher.

It had rained nearly an inch in Pasadena and more than a half-inch in Burbank and downtown Los Angeles by Saturday morning, he said. Orange and San Diego counties were also soaked. Newport Beach received 1½ inches of rain, while Oceanside got about half an inch, the weather service said.

The downpours brought with them the regular rain-related issues that Southern California has come to expect.

The California Highway Patrol was busy clearing up crashes on several freeways and at one point had five separate Sigalerts in effect. A three-car crash on U.S. 101 killed one passenger, authorities said.

Traffic on the westbound 105 Freeway next to Los Angeles International Airport was stopped multiple times Saturday morning for stalled vehicles and traffic crashes.

Forecasters say Southern Californians can expect the wet weather to continue for the next several days, which means teachers striking in the Los Angeles Unified School District are in for days of rain-soaked demonstrations. Saturday brought the first of four storms due to hit the area.

“It almost won’t seem to end,” Fisher said. “All of them are fairly strong systems.”

Though the storms aren’t expected to be as severe as the one that unleashed devastating mudslides in Montecito in 2017, killing 23 people and destroying 130 homes, officials warned that deadly flows of mud and debris can still happen, even in a comparatively milder storm. A burst of rain over a small geographic area could be deadly.

“People should still be cautious. Sometimes you can get these deluges that last about an hour, but that’s all you need to shake loose those hillsides,” climatologist Bill Patzert said.

By the end of the storm series, rainfall totals for many areas across the region should be up to or above their seasonal averages, Fisher said. The next storm is lined up to hit the area Monday, he said.

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