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Rain means relief from wildfires, but also new problems in California

California's nightmare grows as rain follows wildfires.

Kimberly Spainhower (L) and her husband Ryan Spainhower (R) weep while searching through the ashes of their burned home in Paradise, California on November 18, 2018. CREDIT: JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images
Kimberly Spainhower (L) and her husband Ryan Spainhower (R) weep while searching through the ashes of their burned home in Paradise, California on November 18, 2018. CREDIT: JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

After weeks of devastating wildfires, California is about to get some relief from the blaze, with heavy rains already underway. But the downpour will also bring new problems to the scarred region, complicating rescue efforts and potentially making conditions far more dangerous for those in the area.

Heavy rain is set to arrive on Wednesday morning, showering northern California after an onslaught of deadly fires. According to forecasts for the area, three days of rain are expected, bringing as much as nearly eight inches.

The rains do offer some good news for struggling Californians. First and foremost, they’ll likely drench the remaining blaze plaguing the state. They’ll also help clear up the smoke that has soured air quality in the Bay Area, shuttering schools and making breathing hard.

But the rain is also increasing the risk of mudslides and flash floods, in addition to hindering efforts to locate those still missing. For those living in shelters and displaced, the rain also means a new world of misery, one that could see their makeshift homes and tent shelters immersed in mud and water.

That latest setback comes amid a bleak moment for the state. Deadly wildfires across California have left the state reeling, with at least 84 people dead and more than 800 missing as of Wednesday morning. While three deaths are connected to the Woolsey Fire in southern California, the overwhelming majority are linked to the Camp Fire in the state’s northern region, which was around 75 percent contained as of Tuesday night.

Fire map in California. CREDIT: CALFire
Fire map in California. CREDIT: CALFire

Searches for those still missing is underway across the area, where the Camp Fire has burned at least 236 square miles and some 12,000 homes. In Butte County, where some areas have been burned to the ground and many are living in tents and campers, residents are preparing for another round of devastation. Shelters which have been working to accommodate an influx of people already reeling from wildfires are now preparing for potential floods.

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“We want to make sure those people who are staying in tents know that these spaces are available for them so they can get out of the elements,” said Shawn Boyd, who works with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

Northern California’s central region has already issued a flash flood warning in preparation for the rains.

“Flash floods and debris flows will be a particular threat in the wildfire burn areas mentioned above. Heavy rainfall at times is possible over the burn areas,” the National Weather Service warned on Wednesday.

“The storm will be accompanied by winds gusting up to 30 to 45 mph, especially Thursday afternoon and evening,” the service said. “These could potentially bring down fire damaged trees.”

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All residents and emergency responders have been warned to be on alert as the rains begin. One major concern is that the rain will cause an influx of wet ash to flow down steep inclines and into areas where searches for missing people are currently underway. Such a scenario would complicate the search efforts and endanger those on the ground.

Firefighters have expressed concern about the downpour and indicated the rains could spark a worst-case scenario situation endangering rescue workers.

Thousands of firefighters have been working non-stop in an effort to contain the fire. Their numbers include incarcerated firefighters, who are paid only $1 an hour for their labor and lack job prospects in the field upon their release. According to ABC News, two of the three firefighters reported injured while fighting the Camp Fire are incarcerated. Heavy rain could further imperil them and make their jobs much harder.

While most of the concern is centered on hard-hit northern California, Southern California is also expecting rain and the National Weather Service has said “minor debris flows” and mudslides are a likelihood in that area.

Some officials have indicated that rockslides and mud flow are unlikely, but the California Department of Conservation has warned that debris flows can be incredibly dangerous, sometimes moving at 30 miles per hour.

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It is unclear how many people are currently in shelters around California, but tens of thousands were ordered evacuated at the height of the blaze across the state. Officials have said many will be unable to return to their homes until rescue workers have been able to account for the hundreds of people still missing.