National News

Mudslides strike southern California, leaving at least 8 dead

Posted January 9, 2018 5:15 p.m. EST
Updated January 9, 2018 8:02 p.m. EST

— Drenching rain sent mud roaring down the hillsides of Santa Barbara County on Tuesday, killing at least eight people, carrying houses off their foundations, snapping telephone poles and wrapping vehicles around trees, authorities said.

Hundreds of emergency workers, many of whom had weeks earlier battled the massive fire that denuded hillsides and made the dirt so unstable, searched Tuesday for survivors with the help of Coast Guard helicopters and heavy equipment to clear blocked roads.

Firefighters rescued one boy under a freeway overpass Tuesday morning, after mud carried him hundreds of yards.

“That kid that was carried probably a third of a mile downstream,” said Mike Eliason, a public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “His father is still missing.”

Kelly Hoover, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office, said details were not available as to the specific circumstances of the eight deaths but that they were all storm-related.

“There’s still lots of areas that we haven’t been able to get to due to debris blocking roadways,” Eliason said.

He worked with a team of firefighters that rescued eight people including a 14-year-old girl who was in a house that was forced off its foundation and crashed into a stand of trees. It took two hours for firefighters to cut her out of the debris.

Creeks that usually have only a trickle of water burst their banks and “went where they wanted to go,” Eliason said.

“I was waist-deep in the worst kind of mud you can think of,” he said. “You sink when you walk into it, you can’t pull your legs out.”

The rain began early Tuesday and in some cases fell at a rate of an inch per hour.

The mudslides and flooding closed major roads, brought down power lines and caused numerous traffic accidents across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, northwest of Los Angeles, officials said.

“We haven’t had this much rain in a while,” said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, southeast of where the mudslides occurred. The mountains that rise from the Pacific Coast have seen as much as 5 inches of rain over the past two days, drenching the fire-ravaged hills. “Before the rains started they were already seeing boulder slides, trees sliding. It was already loose,” Seto said.

Mudslides closed a stretch of U.S. 101, the key artery along the coast south from Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles County was also drenched, with muddy water rushing down hillsides.

At least 20,000 people were without power Tuesday morning, according to Southern California Edison.

Flash floods also threatened parts of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. But flooding in and around the area scarred by last month’s Thomas wildfire, the largest on record in California, posed the “greatest threat,” according to the Weather Service.

“Residents living in or immediately downstream should take immediate precautions to protect life and property,” it said in a pre-dawn statement. “Quickly move away from the burn area only if it is safe to do so, otherwise shelter in place and move to a second story or the highest location in your home to stay out of the path of fast-moving water and debris flows.” Jonathan W. Godt, who coordinates the landslide hazards program at the U.S. Geological Survey, said the area of the Thomas fire was likely to have debris flows for two reasons: the terrain and the nature of the fire, which burned more than 280,000 acres beginning in early December.

“That’s some really rugged topography,” Godt said, with steep slopes and large elevation differences.

The fire, in a mostly chaparral landscape, also burned exceptionally hot, Godt said. A hot fire changes the physical properties of the soil, making it less absorbent. “It becomes much more erodible,” he said.

As rainwater runs off and flows downhill, it picks up soil and debris and eventually collects in a stream channel. The mix of water and debris, often with a consistency close to wet concrete, can then continue traveling at high speed down the streambed.

“You bring that down at 20 miles per hour and it can do a lot of damage,” Godt said.

But the rainfall can also make whole slopes give way, he said.

The heaviest rains were north of Ojai, in Ventura County, where a total of 7 inches is expected through Wednesday, according to Seto. The worst of the rain had passed by about 7 a.m., though showers and thunderstorms were still possible throughout the day.

At one point early Tuesday, a rain gauge in the Montecito area recorded a quarter-inch of rain falling in as little as five minutes, according to the National Weather Service.