As the rainy season approaches, so too does the danger that a mudslide could affect areas hit by the Thomas Fire. County officials are urging homeowners to act now to protect their property.
The Thomas Fire, which began on Monday, Dec. 4, and is now 92 percent contained as of Tuesday, Jan. 2, is the largest fire in California history, having consumed over 281,000 acres and 1,063 structures in both Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The hillsides stretching from east Ventura to the city of Santa Barbara are charred black, and that means there’s nothing stopping the rain from pouring down onto the streets and valleys below. The worry comes from the fact that debris – including logs, rocks, mud, careless animals and more – will go with it.
“It’s like adding ice cubes to water,” says Ventura County Public Works Agency Director Jeff Pratt. “All of a sudden, you have more depth.”
Pratt says that his agency is trying to get the word out that homeowners, not the city or county, are responsible for clearing debris from their own property, as the county works to clear debris from the hillsides.
“We have very limited, if not zero responsibilities, on private properties, which is not well understood by some,” said Pratt. “With this mud and deep hillsides getting ready to flow in the advance of the right rainfall, we’re trying to get everyone to know to start taking precautions now, protect yourselves with sand bags and that kind of thing.”
Pratt suggests that homeowners look into buying flood insurance now, as with some policies a 30-day window exists before coverage kicks in.
“It will cover mud flows through homes. We’ve seen a lot of that through VC, it’s a mess, and it’s a very expensive cleanup,” said Pratt.
When a wildfire burns hot, consuming vegetation both above and underground, it creates an oily, slick hydrophobic cover. The ground, though spongy from drying out under the intense heat of the flames, is unable to absorb the water.
“When you compare a coffee mug that’s been fired in a kiln and one that hasn’t, in a general, very general sense, that’s kind of what these fires are doing,” said Jim Otousa, county geologist with the Public Works Agency. “They’re getting flash-burned if you will, and the organics in the soil change the behavior of the surface of the ground.”
Higher-intensity burns create more of this slick ground cover. Otousa says that the areas burned on the hillsides from Ventura to Ojai range from moderate- to high-intensity burns, which would promote the creation of hydrophobic layers, though a full assessment should be completed by Jan. 15.
Pratt says that Ojai residents living near federally owned lands can buy flood insurance that becomes effective immediately, but residents only have a 60-day window post-fire to apply. For others, Pratt urges vigilance, and says that the agency is working on warning protocols for when potential mudslide-inducing rains are predicted.
“The rains could be spaced just enough that it turns everything green and nothing moves,” said Pratt. “Right now, we have this dry sponge up there. A light rain is going to get the sponge wet, but once that sponge becomes saturated all bets are off and any rain can be a problem.”
To sign up for emergency alerts, and to get information on protecting your property, hiring experts to assist and how to procure sandbags, visit www.venturacountyrecovers.org and click “Rain Ready.”