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.

"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.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of four Santa Barbara County residents accuses Southern California Edison and the Montecito Water District of negligence that contributed to the damage wrought by the Thomas fire and then the rains last week. The lawsuit was filed in Santa Barbara County last week and updated Tuesday.

The lawsuit alleges that one area of the Thomas fire was ignited Dec. 4 when, amid high winds, SCE-operated equipment "exploded and/or caught fire." The power company did not properly maintain its equipment and the vegetation around it, the lawsuit claims, and as a result the state's largest wildfire in recorded history created a landscape more susceptible to dangerous mud and debris flows.


"We understand that Cal Fire's investigation is ongoing, and it would be premature for SCE to speculate about potential litigation associated with the recent mudslides," Southern California Edison said in a statement.

The lawsuit holds the Montecito Water District responsible for some of the damage during last week's storm. According to the lawsuit, a water main running between two reservoirs ruptured Jan. 9 and released "between 8 to 9 million gallons into creeks in the area." Shutoff valves should have been activated automatically, but that system failed because of a power outage, according to the lawsuit.

Nick Turner, general manager of the Montecito Water District, confirmed Saturday that the 14-inch pipeline connecting reservoirs at the top of the district was washed out in six spots, releasing up to 8 million gallons of water kept in storage.

The pipeline once partly aboveground is now sometimes 50 feet in the air after the ravines beneath it washed out. Access is difficult -- and some crews have to reach it by foot, Turner said.

Turner said the pipes leaked very slowly and that it was at 4 or 5 p.m. on the Tuesday of the mudslides -- roughly 13 to 14 hours after the debris flows began -- when the reservoirs were finished emptying. He compared it to a slowly draining pool.

Debris flows also knocked out a 100-foot section of the pipeline to Jameson Lake, which accounts for up to 40 percent of the area's water supply.

A Montecito Water District spokeswoman did not immediately respond Tuesday to requests for comment about the lawsuit.

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