LOS ANGELES (AP) – A strong Pacific storm dropped heavy rain Wednesday on a swath of coastal California, where thousands of people have been evacuated because of the threat of debris flows and mudslides from wildfire burn areas.
The storm came ashore on the central coast and spread south into the Los Angeles region and north through San Francisco Bay, fed by a long plume of subtropical moisture called an atmospheric river.
Authorities kept a close watch on Santa Barbara County, hoping there would not be a repeat of the massive January debris flows from a burn scar that ravaged the community of Montecito and killed 21 people.
A flood advisory was issued there and in adjacent western Ventura County when rainfall rates reached close to a half-inch (1.14 centimeters) an hour, the National Weather Service said.
Mud and rockslides closed several roads in the region, including Highway 1 at Ragged Point near Big Sur, not far from where the scenic coast route is still blocked by a massive landslide triggered by a storm last year.
With the storm expected to last through Thursday, there was concern about the combination of rainfall rates and the long duration, said Suzanne Grimmesey, a spokeswoman for Santa Barbara County.
With the grim Montecito experience in recent memory, Santa Barbara County ordered evacuation of areas along its south coast near areas burned by several wildfires dating back to 2016.
“We actually do feel good about the evacuation order,” Grimmesey said. “Law enforcement was out in the extreme risk areas of Montecito yesterday knocking on doors. For those that were home, we had a very good cooperation rate with people leaving.”
When sheriff’s deputies told Kristine Sperling and her family they should evacuate their home because of the approaching storm in January, they didn’t listen.
Sperling thought she, her husband and their 11-year-old daughter would be safe. Then the storm unleashed flash floods laden with giant boulders that blasted through town in the middle of the night, destroying or damaging hundreds of homes. A dear friend was among those killed.
Now the Sperlings don’t question evacuation orders. They just go.
“It’s a matter of life and death,” Sperling said from Santa Barbara, where her family was staying with friends after evacuating Tuesday.
The Sperlings’ home wasn’t damaged in January but the family needed to be rescued after losing electricity, gas and water, and all the roads out of town were destroyed.
“We’re just not willing to take that kind of chance anymore,” said Sperling, 48. “What happened in January was just all of our worst nightmares.”
Many residents in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties have faced repeated evacuations or advisories since December, when a wind-driven fire grew into the largest in recorded state history and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings.
Montecito resident Garrick Hyder evacuated for the December wildfire but not ahead of the January mudslides, which destroyed items in his garage including a motorcycle and thousands of dollars’ worth of snowboarding and scuba-diving equipment.
Hyder watched as rescuers retrieved several bodies over several days from in front of his house.
Hyder evacuated four days after the mudslides and then again when another storm threatened the area a week ago.
“I’m on No. 4 now,” Hyder said Tuesday as he packed his car. “It’s pretty crazy. It’s kind of the price of living in paradise.”
In Los Angeles County, authorities planned to put mandatory and voluntary evacuations into effect at 6 p.m. Wednesday in areas near four recent wildfires.