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Los Padres National Forest bracing for debris flows - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

Los Padres National Forest bracing for debris flows

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Crews once battling flames of the Thomas Fire are facing a new challenge - an influx of rain creating dangerous mudslides.

"The fire and then the flood has been going on in this country for at least 100 years, more like 150 years," National Forest Service Ranger Pancho Smith said running his hand over the Thomas Fire Burn map.

As the rain moved in, equipment used to dig and repair fire lines in the Los Padres National Forest moved out. 

"We really pushed our people hard, did as much as we could and then pulled all of the equipment out of the back country, all of the crews out," Smith explained.

Despite crews leaving areas in the forest still considered active Thomas Fire spots, Smith said there's little concern the fire will grow. Attention is now focused on flood and debris flow prevention.

But the situation is unprecedented for even the most seasoned forest and fire crews. "We have fire, then we have flood, and then we have earthquakes. We think we train for it but this is beyond the scope of that," Smith, a tenured Ranger, said.

Crews did prepare for the rain by dropping 50 rice straw bails along Ogilvy Ranch, but bare, burned hillsides pose the biggest danger.

"You're talking about a tremendous amount of water, a tremendous amount of weight hitting a piece of land thy does not have the vegetation that it needs to absorb and take care of the water," explained Tom Stokesberry, Thomas Fire PIO.

Stokesberry broke it down, saying, "one inch of rain over an acre of land is about a little over 27,000 gallons of water at about 113 tons."

And with some areas expecting three to six inches of rain expected in some areas, the mixture of massive amounts of water and lose soil has lead to dangerous debris flows. 

"You have very heavy objects and projectiles in the water being pushed by the weight of that water," Stokesberry said.

Once the rain has passed, crews will return to the more remote areas of the Los Padres National Forest to assess damage caused by the storm. Especially any ecological damage that could affect endangered species.

However, for those in residential areas under mandatory evacuations due to flooding, Smith and Stokesberry encourage residents to leave.  "If you see it coming, it's too late."

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