Santa Barbara County officials said the county is at great risk of flooding and debris flows during this season’s winter storms because of the several wildfires that ignited in the area over the past year.
Federal, state and local officials issued the warning at a press conference on Wednesday in Santa Barbara.
In January, a debris flow from the Thomas Fire destroyed several homes, killed 21 people and left two missing.
Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson said the devastation from the Thomas Fire and the debris flow following it, is a great reminder of how important it is that the county does everything to avoid a repeat of that event.
“We have to be aware, we have to recognize that there is still tremendous potential for the death and the destruction that we experienced less than a year ago,” Jackson said.
Experts said post-fire floods are a greater risk to homes affected by the fires because the ground cannot absorb the water, which picks up the ash and debris as it flows downhill.
With winter storm season starting next week, Jackson said the county is starting to prepare for possible flooding and getting ‘flood ready.’
“It’s not just water but debris, boulders, the thousands of pounds of individual boulders that rush through as the hillsides collapse because of the lack of vegetation that they could still do that this year,” Jackson said.
The state Department of Water Resources said more than seven million people who live in California are at risk of flooding.
Jeff Toney works for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and said it could take the Santa Barbara County hillsides between two to five years to heal, which is why it is essential to act now.
“Mudflows don’t give you that much warning, they usually happen in a matter of minutes with very little warning,” said Micahel Sabbaghian, California Dept. of Water Resources Principal Engineer. “The key is what you’ve already heard from others – be aware of your risk, know where your homes is compared to the burned areas, be aware of any forecast that could potentially impact those burned areas if you are directly below those burned areas.”
Sabbaghian said the most important thing to do is to take action when local authorities ask people to evacuate.