Homeowners filled sandbags and crews erected concrete barriers to guard southern California property against possible landslides Tuesday as a major Pacific storm threatened to inundate foothills recently denuded by wildfire.
A key concern was that heavy rains could cause mud and debris to slip down hillsides made bare from the summer fire, state fire spokeswoman Colleen Baxter said.
Some residents have been placing boulders in key areas around their homes, hoping to blunt the destructive power of flash floods.
"We know the fires go through and do a lot of damage," Los Angeles County fire Inspector Frederic Stowers said. "Within L.A. County, much of the slopes burned are going to be critical."
Sandbagging and other preparations were being made in southern California neighborhoods under threat, while heavy rains caused more than 260,000 power outages and dozens of voluntary evacuations in parts of central and Northern California.
Residents warned about mud slides
By Tuesday afternoon, several inches of rain had already fallen in some mountainous areas in the north. But precipitation was still relatively light in the south, where flood watches were issued in fire-ravaged parts of Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties as the storm was expected to strengthen by nightfall.
People living around burn areas near the 250-square-mile Station Fire in Angeles National Forest were warned to brace for possible flows of mud, ash and debris with rainfall of up to 4 inches. Los Angeles County's average rainfall for October is less than half an inch.
The storm was expected to drop 3 to 6 inches of rain in Santa Barbara County, where an 8,700-acre fire burned in May, before it moves on to the San Gabriel Mountains, where the U.S. Geological Survey recently warned of massive debris flows near the areas burned in September.
Areas of concern in Los Angeles County included Tujunga, La Canada Flintridge and La Crescenta.
Dorothy Kruegermann, 44, in La Crescenta, said public works crews were working intensely in the rain to install concrete barriers and sandbags to protect homes.
"The geologist came on Friday and said we'd be like an island here and might not be able to get out," she said. "We might go to in-laws tonight. I saw all that burned area and dirt and rocks that could come down here."
Kruegermann said the neighborhood, which had been under evacuation orders during the Station Fire, just had a block party on Saturday to celebrate getting through the disaster.
"It is obvious to me there are going to be some slides," said Richard Payatt, 46, whose Santa Barbara home was evacuated during the fire in May. "It's part of living in Santa Barbara with these beautiful hills. Occasionally you get fires, and then you get slides."
Tarps, sandbags selling out
Payatt said a local hardware store was sold out of tarps and sandbags because of the storm.
"If it rains really really hard, and the creeks overflow, we get flooded out," said hair salon owner Walter Claudio, 50, whose Santa Barbara hillside home was also evacuated because of the fire. Several neighbors' homes had been damaged from the flames.
"We've been putting boulders on my property, to hold some banks close to the house," Claudio said. "Everyone's been really proactive the last two months, getting ready for this."
Flash flood watches were issued for 11 counties up and down the state, said National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Morris.
The agency issued a flash flood watch through Wednesday for the Santa Barbara burn areas. Between 1 and 2.4 inches of rain fell through Tuesday afternoon, Morris said. A flash flood watch for the Los Angeles-area foothills was to take effect at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Stowers said thousands of sandbags were distributed to fire stations throughout Los Angeles County, including more than 10,000 at a station near La Canada Flintridge.
In Northern California, forecasters issued high wind warnings for the mountains, where gusts up to 60 mph were expected, and advisories for lower elevations, where gusts were expected to reach 50 mph.
By midday Tuesday, more than 6 inches of rain had fallen in parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains and more than 4 inches in parts of Marin County, according to the National Weather Service.
Santa Cruz County issued voluntary evacuation orders affecting about 60 homes near areas burned by the Lockheed Fire, a 7,800-acre blaze ignited in August.
Geologist Mathers Rowley lives in the Swanton Road area where the voluntary evacuations were under way. He said he did not plan to leave right away as his house was in a safe position.
"If I lived in another tributary nearby, I wouldn't be here. There are some really steep denuded slopes that with the wind and rain could send debris straight down. But it hasn't developed where I am. If it gets worse, then we'll see," he said.
Crews nearby were bagging 25 tons of sand for people to use to shore up their homes.
High winds knocked out power to about 263,000 Pacific Gas & Electric customers in central and northern California, but crews have managed to restore power to more than half of those customers, said utility spokesman Joe Molica. In the greater San Francisco Bay area, 23,000 customers remained without power at 1 p.m.