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Heavy Rain Could Trigger Mudslides in Fire-Weary California

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Map of damage to the town of Paradise from the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history. NASA / JPL-Caltech

Northern California, which is already reeling from the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history, is now bracing for heavy rainfall this week.

The forecasted rain could bring much-needed relief for the firefighters battling the Camp Fire in Butte County. However, it could also bring new hazards due to possible ash, mud and debris flows triggered by the rain.


The Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise, has burned more than 150,000 acres and killed 79 people, according to Cal Fire. Nearly 1,000 people remain missing, Reuters reported.

Up to 4 inches of rain this week could help beat back the inferno, which is currently 70 percent contained. But the weather forecast has brought extra stress to wildfire-weary residents.

Some evacuees are camping out in tents or their cars. Cady Machado told KTXL-TV she is staying in a tent at a Walmart parking lot with her husband and baby. With the incoming rain, Machado said she will send her child to her sister's home in Arizona.

She and her husband, however, have other plans. "There's a nice bridge with my name on it to go underneath where I won't get flooded out with my husband," she said.

The National Weather Service has issued a flash flood watch from Wednesday afternoon through Friday morning for the Camp Fire, the Carr, Delta and Hirz wildfires in Shasta County and the Mendocino Complex in Lake County burn areas in Northern California.

"Properties impacted by the wildfires, and downstream of those areas, are at risk for flash flooding, mudflows and debris flows during periods of intense rainfall," Butte County announced Monday. "Wildfires can alter the terrain and soil conditions reducing the capacity for the ground to absorb water creating conditions for these type of hazards. In addition, creeks and streams within burned watersheds have elevated risk of flooding, mud, and debris flows due to increased rain runoff and potential for sediment to fill channels and block culverts."

Multiple state, regional and local agencies are preparing for the potential impacts of storm weather. "The mutual goal of this effort is to protect human life and critical infrastructure (bridges, roads, culverts, and flood protection facilities), wildlife and the natural environment including streams and waterways," the county said.

Last year, at least 21 people were killed and hundreds of homes were destroyed or damaged during a mudslide that followed the massive Thomas Fire in Southern California.

The flames not only scorched away grass, shrubs and other vegetation that hold soil in place, but they also baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevented the rains from being absorbed into the ground, Reuters explained then.

Relief organizations such as Red Cross have opened additional shelters for people and pets in preparation for the inclement weather in Northern California, CNN reported.

"We want to make sure those people who are staying in tents know that these spaces are available for them so they can get out of the elements," said Shawn Boyd with California's Office of Emergency Services.

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