2018 Southern California mudflows
Homes and streets of a neighborhood affected by the Santa Barbara County mudslides
|Date||January 9, 2018– present|
|Location||Southern California, United States|
|Cause||Soil saturation from heavy rainfall and deforestation due to recent wildfires|
|Property damage||65 residences destroyed, 462 residences damaged, 8 commercial buildings destroyed, 20 commercial buildings damaged|
A series of debris flows in Southern California occurred in early January 2018, particularly affecting areas northwest of Los Angeles in Santa Barbara County. There have been 20 reported deaths, and 28 others were injured while four people remain missing. Approximately 163 people were hospitalized with various injuries, including four in critical condition. The disaster occurred one month after a series of major wildfires devastated nearby areas, causing devegetation and the subsequent mudflows.
The 2017 California wildfire season was the largest and most destructive in California's history, with approximately 9,000 wildfires that burned 1.2 million acres (4,900 km2) and killed 46 people. At the beginning of December, the Santa Ana winds fanned wildfires across southern California, which were fueled by a lack of rainfall during what is normally the region's rainy season. The December fires burned 307,953 acres (124,624 ha), 281,893 acres (114,078 ha) of which by the Thomas Fire, the largest fire in the state's history. The Thomas Fire, which devastated parts of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, burned large amounts of vegetation whose roots had helped stabilize topsoil in hillsides and other vulnerable areas. After burning for more than a month, the fire was declared fully contained on January 12, 2018.
A strong low-pressure system and cold front developed off the coast of California on January 5, 2018. The system moved onto the mainland on January 8, bringing heavy rain to southern California and prompting mandatory evacuations in parts of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties over potential mudslides in areas affected by wildfires. The storm intensified the following day, with two to four inches (5.1 to 10.2 cm) of rain falling over the two-day period and causing several major mudflows.
Santa Barbara County
|Location of the Montecito mudflow|
Early on the morning of January 9, mudflows struck Montecito, which had been affected by the Thomas Fire, and other areas of Santa Barbara County. An estimated 0.5 inches (13 mm) of rain fell within a five-minute period at approximately 3:30 a.m., causing mud and boulders from the Santa Ynez Mountains to flow down creeks and valleys into Montecito. The mudflows covered areas with up to 15 feet (4.6 m) of mud and debris, moving at estimated speeds of up to 20 miles per hour (32 km/h) into the lower areas of Montecito. Over 20,000 people lost power, and a 30-mile (48 km) section of U.S. Route 101 (US 101) from Santa Barbara to Ventura was shut down as sections filled with two feet (0.61 m) of mud and debris. Following the closure, access to Santa Barbara from the Los Angeles area was limited to a 260-mile (420 km) detour around the Los Padres National Forest or through the use of private ferries to Ventura. On January 11, Amtrak train service was restored to Santa Barbara and US 101 was partially reopened as far west as Carpinteria.
Approximately 21,000 residents of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in high elevation zones affected by the Thomas Fire were evacuated, but low-lying areas were outside of the mandatory evacuation area. Warning messages sent by the National Weather Service and the county government arrived too late to prompt Montecito residents to seek safe areas. Some residents in the voluntary evacuation area ignored warnings and stayed in their homes, a result of "evacuation fatigue" left over from the recent wildfires. The mandatory evacuation zone was expanded to cover all of Montecito's 10,000 residents on January 11 while the week-long rescue operations are underway and services are restored.
As of January 13, the mudflows caused at least 19 confirmed deaths and an additional five people were reported as missing, mostly in the Montecito area. Over 150 people were hospitalized with various injuries, including four in critical condition. The mudflows destroyed over 100 homes and damaged an additional 300.
Cleanup efforts began a week after the initial mudflows, with debris being sent to the Ventura County Fairgrounds for sorting and the Calabasas Landfill for disposal. A cold storm expected to arrive on January 18 could deliver additional rain to the area, triggering additional mudflows and hindering the ongoing search for victims.
Los Angeles County
Parts of Burbank and Sun Valley, previously affected by the La Tuna Fire, received four inches (10 cm) of rain and were evacuated ahead of potential mudslides. A debris flow into a residential area of Sun Valley damaged 40 to 45 homes and carried a vehicle that struck a natural gas pipeline, which began to leak. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for nearby areas of the San Fernando Valley affected by the Creek Fire before the storm, but no major damage was reported.
Orange and Riverside counties
More than 1,250 firefighters from California and other states, along with the California Conservation Corps and California National Guard, were dispatched to Santa Barbara County for search and rescue operations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that emergency assistance funds related to the wildfires would be extended to cover damage from the mudflows. Approximately 300 residents of the Romero Canyon neighborhood near Montecito were rescued via a helicopter airlift after roads were blocked by debris.
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