Environment & Science

Rain prompts evacuations for Southern California burn areas

The remains of damaged vehicles remain outside a home in the hills of Toro Canyon north of Santa Barbara, California on December 12, 2017 as firefighters continue to battle the Thomas Fire.
The remains of damaged vehicles remain outside a home in the hills of Toro Canyon north of Santa Barbara, California on December 12, 2017 as firefighters continue to battle the Thomas Fire.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Note: For updated rain info for Tuesday, Jan. 9, click here. This story includes information on the rain from Monday, Jan. 8.

Mandatory evacuations | Voluntary evacuations | Evacuation centers | School closures | Road closures

With the first major storm of the season expected to hit Southern California on Monday, evacuations have been ordered for communities below hillsides charred by California's largest-ever wildfire, in anticipation of damaging mudslides

The wet and windy system moving ashore Monday could soak much of the state and drop several inches in parts of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, where the Thomas Fire has burned for more than a month and left hillsides bare.

About 21,000 Santa Barbara County residents were evacuated because rains could wash dirt and debris down into neighborhoods. Hillsides scorched during the Sherpa and Whittier fires are also areas of concern.

Towns north of the 101 are most in danger. Unincorporated parts of Santa Barbara County, Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria are just some of the areas under mandatory evacuation orders.

Duarte issued mandatory evacuation orders for about 180 homes near the Fish Fire burn area beginning at 7 p.m. due to the threat of mud and debris flows, while Burbank issued a group of voluntary evacuation orders.

Robert Lewin, director of Santa Barbara County's Office of Emergency Services, said residents should heed the evacuation orders. High-elevation areas will receive up to 9 inches of rainfall.

"That can create mud and debris flows ... that could take what is normally a dry creek most of the year and turn it into a raging river of rocks and mud and trees that can damage people's properties, it can take out roads and it can be a threat to life and safety," he told KPCC. 

The main evacuation center is located at the Santa Barbara City College cafeteria. Large animals should be taken to the Earl Warren Show Grounds.

About 1,000 Anaheim residents in three neighborhoods facing slopes that burned in the Canyon 2 Fire could be at risk of mud or debris flows, city spokesman Mike Lyster said Monday. However, the city does not have immediate plans to call for mandatory evacuations.

City public works crews are carefully watching three neighborhoods near Blue Sky Way at Weir Canyon, Roadrunner Road and Avenida de Santiago.

Anaheim city and Orange County crews have constructed water diversion berms out of bags of gravel. They’ve also covered the endangered slopes with a spray-on mulch.

“This provides kind of a sturdy top layer that is designed to prevent runoff from areas where you used to have vegetation that would have kept stuff in place,” Lyster said.

The Canyon Fire was started by a road flare that was knocked into grass along Highway 91 by a vehicle on Sept. 25. It was fully contained Oct. 4 — however, an ember from a remaining hotspot escaped the containment area and started the Canyon 2 fire on Oct. 9. That second fire burned 13 homes and damaged others.

The Los Angeles Fire Department also tweeted that another evacuation center has been set up for burn area residents of recent fires, including the Creek Fire, Skirball Fire and La Tuna Fire. Evacuees can go to the Sun Valley Recreational Center at 8133 Vineland Avenue in Sun Valley. Those with large animals can take them to Pierce College at 6201 Winnetka Avenue in Woodland Hills.

La Conchita, where a massive landslide happened in 2005, and the Ojai Valley also face potential mudslides.

The U.S. Geological Survey has mapped the mudslide risks for areas across Southern California.

This map estimates the likelihood of debris flow in the Thomas Fire burn areas (January 6, 2018).
This map estimates the likelihood of debris flow in the Thomas Fire burn areas (January 6, 2018).
United States Geological Survey

In the Creek Fire zone, Kagel Canyon and parts of Tujunga are in the high hazard zone.

Bill Lipshin shoveled sand into sandbags Monday, working to protect his Kagel Canyon home just a month after having to evacuate during the Creek Fire. 

“There's a lot of things that could happen. I'm just trying to cover each and every base," Lipshin said.

Archie Powell came to the local fire station to help his neighbors collect sandbags. He’s been living in Kagel Canyon for 45 years, and said he couldn’t remember a winter quite like this. 

"We've seen a lot of floods up here. A lot of water. And the canyon can handle water. But we've never had a rain event of this magnitude after a fire of that magnitude, so close together," Powell said.

Officials say Kagel Canyon is in a high hazard zone for mudslides, along with Lopez Canyon and parts of Tujunga.

This map estimates the likelihood of debris flow in the Creek Fire burn areas (January 6, 2018).
This map estimates the likelihood of debris flow in the Creek Fire burn areas (January 6, 2018).
United States Geological Survey

In the Skirball Fire area, the highest risk areas are located off Linda Flora Drive, Moraga Drive and East Sepulveda Road.

This map estimates the likelihood of debris flow in the Skirball Fire burn areas (January 6, 2018).
This map estimates the likelihood of debris flow in the Skirball Fire burn areas (January 6, 2018).
United States Geological Survey

Residents affected by almost any other major fire that occurred in California in 2017 — including the Rye Fire near Santa Clarita and the Canyon Fire 2 in Orange County — can check their mudslide risk at this USGS map.

"This is definitely landslide country," Jason Kean with USGS told KPCC. "That giant landslide, the La Conchita one, that's a different style of landslide then we'd probably expect for this story. That one was something that occurred after an exceptionally wet year."

Crews have already set up K-rails in parts of Tujunga, where the La Tuna Fire scorched the Verdugo Mountains in September. K-rails are also up in areas burned during last month's 15,000-acre Creek Fire, which destroyed 60 homes near Sylmar. 

Smoke from the Thomas Fire fills the Ojai Valley on December 13, 2017.
Smoke from the Thomas Fire fills the Ojai Valley on December 13, 2017.
Emily Guerin/KPCC

Kean said it won't take much rainfall for to cause problems. As a rule of thumb, the steeper the hillside and the worse the burn area, the more likely debris will move during rainstorms.

A flash flood watch will go into effect for areas of L.A. County that were also burned by recent wildfires. About an inch of rain is forecast for downtown Los Angeles, the most in nearly a year.

The flash flood advisory goes into effect at 10 p.m. Monday and will be in effect for 24 hours. It includes areas affected by the Creek, La Tuna, Skirball, Rye and Fish fires. 

Snow could make for treacherous driving conditions in mountain areas early Tuesday.

In June 2016, the Fish Fire burned approximately 5,000 acres in the foothills north of the San Gabriel Valley. After the fire, the USGS installed a camera to monitor post-wildfire flooding and debris flow in a canyon in Duarte. This is what a small mudflow can look like in a burn area:

mudflow vid

Mandatory evacuations

Los Angeles County:

Santa Barbara County:

Ventura County:

Voluntary evacuations

Los Angeles County

Ventura County (from Monday at 6 p.m. until Tuesday at 12 p.m.)

Advisories were also in place for:

Evacuation centers

For large animals:

School closures

Road closures

Creek Fire/Fish Fire-area closures:

The following streets are under mandatory evacuations:

The following streets are under Identification Check Points only — only residents not on the Prohibited List will be allowed access to their homes:

La Tuna Canyon Fire-area closures:

This story has been updated.