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Rain expected this week may hamper Montecito and freeway cleanup efforts

Sonali Kohli, Matt Hamilton and Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

LOS ANGELES -- Rain expected later this week could hamper the cleanup process for crews trying to remove tons of debris and mud from Montecito and surrounding areas, after mud flows killed 20 people and destroyed more than 100 homes last week.

The area is far from recovered from last week's deluge. Officials say three people are still missing, about 1,400 are without power, and a stretch of the 101 Freeway remains closed between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria, even after crews have spent a week trying to clear the muddy, debris-filled river created by the deadly flows.

The cold storm should arrive Thursday evening and drop between a tenth and two-tenths of an inch of rain over the Thomas fire burn and debris flow area through Friday morning, said Weather Service hydrologist Jayme Laber.

While that's not enough rain to create slides in the area under normal conditions, officials are proceeding with caution and warning evacuees to stay away, unsure of what more precipitation could do to a landscape that has already been massively altered in the last months.

"We're dealing with a very, very new area of disaster. ... We're unsure of how that landscape is going to react to even a small amount of rain," said Capt. Jon Heggie with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "There's two things we're dealing with -- one being the way the landscape has changed due to the mudslides and also obviously the overwhelming impact the whole landscape has taken due to the removal of the ... holding material, all the brush that's been burnt away."

The rain could also make cleanup efforts more difficult, he said.

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"It's difficult to work in any type of rainy, wet situation," Heggie said. "We're trying to get rid of water, and now we're going to be adding more water."

About 20 crews are also trying to restore power, but are hampered by "significant mud flow and debris blocking roads," Southern California Edison spokesman Steve Conroy said in an email. "Dozens of poles, wires and other equipment need to be replaced. There is progress, but it will continue to be slow due to current conditions."

Authorities have not yet identified the cause of the Thomas fire or the extent that human involvement affected the mudslides, said Cal Fire spokeswoman Blanca Mercado.

But those affected by the damage are already trying to assign blame.

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