Southern California wildfires paved the way for deadly mudslides

Last year’s wildfires in Southern California paved the way for this week’s deadly mudslides, which turned roadways into ruinous rivers of mud and debris.

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Heavy rain unleashed flash floods and debris flow in the southern part of the Golden State Tuesday, just weeks after several wildfires torched the area. At least 15 people have died and more than 20 injured from weather-related incidents as of today, according to officials in Santa Barbara County.

At least two dozen people in Santa Barbara County were unaccounted for, officials said.

Aerial view of Montecito, Calif., where mud and debris covers roads, homes and everything in it’s path following heavy rains, Jan. 9, 2018.
Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Dept. via EPA
US 101 Freeway at the Olive Mill Road overpass flooded with runoff water from Montecito Creek and blocked with mudflow and debris following heavy rains in Montecito, Calif., Jan. 9, 2018.

The mudslides struck the communities hit hard by the Thomas fire in December, the largest wildfire in California’s modern history. That’s because burned soil can act as a water repellent like pavement, so rainfall that would normally be absorbed in the ground runs off rapidly after a wildfire. Thus, much less rain is needed to cause a flash flood.

As the floodwater gushes downhill through burned areas, it can create major erosion and pick up vast amounts of ash, mud, rocks, sand, silt and scorched vegetation like trees and shrubs. Locations downhill and downstream from the burn scar left by a wildfire are susceptible to flash flooding, debris flow and mudslides, according to the National Weather Service.

The force of the rushing water, mud and debris can be catastrophic. It can damage or destroy roadways, bridges, culverts and buildings even miles away from the burned area.

Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire via EPA
Firefighters rescue a 14-year-old girl trapped inside a destroyed home during heavy rains in Montecito, Calif., Jan. 9, 2018. Heavy rains overnight combined with large areas burned by the Thomas Fire combined for flash flooding and mudslide risk.
Daniel Dreifuss/AP
A member of the Long Beach Search and Rescue team looks for survivors in a car in Montecito, Calif., Jan. 9, 2018.

The devastating Thomas fire that ignited Dec. 4…

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