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News Stories

Mudslide Risk After Wildfires

In the wake of the recent Camp Fire that ripped through Paradise and surrounding communities, thousands of California residents find themselves displaced from their homes. The blaze led to millions of dollars in property damage and dozens of injuries and deaths. As the deadliest wildfire in California history, officials are still tallying the damage – and residents will feel the effects for years to come.

Though the blaze may be officially out, other dangers plague the region in the aftermath. Mudslides and turbulent weather continue to pose dangers to the families of Paradise and the surrounding region.

Rain Hitting California

After a historic dry season that stoked many of the state’s fires, much-needed rain is pelting the California region. However, the amount of rain forecast is creating the threat of mudslides in many of the regions still recovering from fire. Residents still cleaning up from the Holy Fire in southern California are in the process of evacuation, and Paradise is under a mandatory evacuation order after the National Weather Service issued multiple flash flood warnings.

The fires and mudslides in California over the past couple of years have been record-setting. Since wildfires have destroyed vegetation in much of the landscape, mud can travel without impediment – in 2017, mudslides traveled through Santa Barbara County in excess of 35 miles per hour and killed 17 people. The kinds of mudslides forecast for the coming weeks have the potential to sweep away burnt homes, more trees, rocks, and cars.

Why Do Mudslides Happen?

The potential for landslides increases exponentially following any wildfire, and for several reasons. First, wildfires create a layer of slick debris such as ash, broken tree branches, and charred remnants of homes. Ash, in particular, is very fine and creates the perfect surface for sliding. Secondly, fire dries out the ground and creates a hard layer that’s hard for water to permeate. Instead of absorbing moisture, the water skims across the surface of the land and picks up more ash and debris, creating a mudslide.

Where Can We Expect Mudslides?

Generally speaking, the more sloped the area, the greater the potential for mudslides. However, the degree of the mudslide will also depend on the geographic materials present. Hard rocks, for example, are sturdier than materials like soil and sand. Areas with a lot of foliage tend to hold the land together with their root structure. The less vegetation before the fire, the more likely the area is to experience mudslides and debris avalanches.

The water from a torrential rainfall will flow into gullies and ravines, so those areas are more likely to experience mudslides. Without the impediment of vegetation, underbrush, or tree growth, debris growth can be very fast moving and deadly.

What to Do in a Mudslide Risk Area

If you’re located in an area that’s vulnerable to mudslides – examples include Paradise and surrounding areas in the north, and the LA area in the south – the best thing you can do is listen to your local fire marshal. If you receive an evacuation order, heed it. If your fire marshal warns of the potential for mudslides, keep up-to-date with the National Weather Service and be prepared to evacuate quickly. Keep a bag packed and your car fueled just in case. Remember, these mudslides can move very quickly – in excess of 35 miles per hour – so heeding an evacuation warning could be a matter of life or death.

Mudslides pose a risk to health and safety, and many of the fire areas are at risk in the coming weeks. Be vigilant and follow any instructions issued by your local government or fire marshal.