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Montecito prepares for future mudslides

A firefighter stands near a car caught up in a mud slide in Montecito, California.
A firefighter stands near a car caught up in a mud slide in Montecito, California.

It was only last month that heavy rains triggered a devastating mudslide in Montecito that claimed 21 lives and destroyed at least 100 homes. But the rainy season isn't over.

And even the slightest hint of rain now has the community on high alert. In the hopes of predicting a mudslide before it happens, the U.S. Geological Survey assessed the area shortly after last month's devastation. Francis Rengers is one of the scientists who conducted the study. He joined Take Two to talk about his research mapping the Montecito debris flows.

More than a mudslide 

Rengers said he prefers the term debris flow, not mudslide, because it indicates the size and impact of the event that hit Montecito. 

"If you visualize a mud puddle, it's like a thick soupy thing, but what we saw was boulders larger than trucks, so I like the term debris rather than mud because it conveys the severity."

Looking out for more debris flows

If Montecito has more rain, there there could be more debris flows because when an area is burned as it was by the Thomas fire, it impacts how soil absorbs water, Rengers said.

"Rather than soaking in, the water tends to pile up like it's running off a parking lot. So any areas that are susceptible to a fire are then susceptible to debris flows." 

Kevin Taylor, Montecito's deputy fire chief, said for the next three to five years officials would be watching for another debris flowto hit.  

However, Montecito isn't the only place under threat. Taylor said other coastal communities and areas in Santa Barbara scarred by fires could also see debris flows. 

Preparing the community for the future

Taylor explain that emergency responders have rolled out a new messaging alert program that sends pre-evacuation advisories, and recommends evacuation and mandatory evacuation orders.  The pre-evacuation notices, which will be sent out 72 hours before a storm, are the most important change being made, he said. 

"We get very accurate forecasts from the National Weather Service, and we feel like that gives our community time to prepare if we start communicating with them... It provides them an opportunity to be prepared to leave when we asked them to leave."

Predicting future debris flows

Rengers said that right now we can predict whether or not a debris flow will happen, but it's still difficult to say how big the debris flow will be and where it will travel. The USGS team hopes to be able to answer those questions in the future by studying data from Montecito.

Most models of debris flows consider mainly natural topography, Rengers said. Looking at Montecito gives researchers a chance to understand infrastructure like bridges and roads and the role they play in how a debris flow moves.