At least eight people were killed in Southern California on Tuesday when torrential rain sent mud and debris streaming through Montecito in Santa Barbara County — a nightmarish development for a community that just endured the Thomas Fire, the worst wildfire in state history.
The heavy rain struck at around 2:30 a.m., quickly causing “waist-high” mudflows and sending massive boulders from the slopes into residential neighborhoods. In addition to the eight people already confirmed dead, at least 25 were reported wounded, and rescue crews are searching area homes for survivors. In one instance, a 14-year-old girl was saved from a “tangled mess of a house” by firefighters.
“It’s going to be worse than anyone imagined for our area,” Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason told the Los Angeles Times. “Following our fire, this is the worst-case scenario.” Eliason added, “we’ll definitely have more,” referring to deaths from the landslide.
The mudslides follow on directly from one of California’s worst ever fire seasons, which left steep slopes covered in ash and utterly barren of any sort of vegetation. As a result, the land is less able to absorb water, leaving the surrounding areas at risk to landslides and flash flooding. A serious lack of precipitation throughout the end of 2017 only worsened the problem.
Tens of thousands of residents in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties are now being forced to evacuate just weeks after the Thomas Fire forced them to do the same.
“In these patches of particularly high burn intensity, nearly all vegetation was consumed by fire,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain recently explained on his weather blog. “This means that rainfall has a very hard time soaking into the ground — and is instead forced to immediately flow downhill as nearly instantaneous runoff.”
The devastating fires that created the conditions for the mudslides fit into a pattern of increasingly intense and destructive fires fueled by climate change. Wildfire season has grown from five months in the 1970s to seven months currently, consuming more and more acres of land. Meanwhile, an October 2017 study found that rising temperatures were to blame for almost half of wildfire increases on the West Coast since the 1970s.
“Climate change doesn’t just increase temperatures. It’s not just that it is warm this year, it’s that it has been warmer on average for years,” Leroy Westerling, professor of management of complex systems at the University of California, Merced, said. “It’s this long-term, cumulative drying that is due to warmer temperatures.”