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First wildfires, now mudslides. California endures year-round disaster season.

Climate change is making linked disasters more common across the U.S., scientists say.
Image: California mudslides
A truck drives along River Road, where heavy rains caused mudslides and flooding near Salinas, California, on Thursday. The area sits beneath hillsides scorched in last year's River Fire.Noah Berger / AP

SALINAS, Calif. — It was 4 a.m. when Crystal Urite and her family were awakened by firefighters knocking at the door of her home in Monterey County.

Mudslides were starting to flow in the burn scar left by last summer’s River Fire, and the firefighters recommended she evacuate. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Urite didn’t want to go to a crowded shelter. Thirty minutes later, her SUV was submerged in mud.

The driveway was covered in thick sludge, which had blown through the garage door, lining the interior with rocks and debris picked up on the mudslide’s miles-long route through the coastal foothills south of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Many homes in Urite’s neighborhood that survived the 75-square-mile River Fire were damaged in a pattern as old as the California coastal ranges. But as the fire season grows longer in the West because of climate change, residents are finding that if they escape one disaster, they may not be so lucky during the next.

“The fire was pretty scary, and I didn’t think the flood was going to be as bad,” Urite said of Wednesday’s mudslide, “but then we woke up to the water and everything overflowing.”

Monterey County still had assessors in the field Friday, but at least 25 structures were damaged and nearly 8,000 residents were put under evacuation orders, said communications coordinator Maia Carroll. In Big Sur, a portion of scenic Highway 1 washed into the ocean Thursday night.

A truck drives along River Rd. where heavy rains have caused mudslides and flooding near Salinas in Monterey County, Calif., on Jan. 28, 2021. The area sits beneath hillsides scorched in last year's River Fire.Noah Berger / AP

More rain is forecast for parts of the state next week.

In the recent downpour, Urite’s car was destroyed, and she needed a backhoe to clear her garage and driveway. The house directly uphill from hers was buried in 3 feet of debris Thursday with mud stains up to the roof. The house survived a fire season that burned thousands of square miles across California, only to be destroyed in the aftermath.

Mudslides and wildfires are what scientists call concurrent disasters, with one setting the stage for another. After the worst fire season in California’s history last year, during which five of the six largest fires to burn in the state started within a two-month period, rainfall not only brings the wicked season to an end, but carries the possibility of more disaster.

Sea level rise and stronger hurricanes are making flooding in the Southeast exponentially more dangerous, and drought in the Southwest is fueling the longer fire season.

As the global climate continues to heat up, so does the reckoning with nature, experts say. In 2020, 22 natural disasters caused at least $1 billion in damages in the United States alone.

“The heavy rainfall is always a challenge, but when you’ve got the fires and the rainfall within a few months of each other, even a few years of each other, you generate a whole new category of risks,” said Stanford University environmental studies professor Chris Field, who helped author a 2012 United Nations report on climate change and disaster risk around the world.

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Trees and plants usually stabilize the earth, but after a severe fire, nothing is left to keep the saturated soil in place, and the rain hits the ground uninterrupted by branches and plants instead of being distributed by root systems. Once the ground starts to slide, it’s difficult to stop, Field said.

“It can really build momentum, like an avalanche does in snow,” he said, “and start spreading out soil over a very large area.”

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Urite’s neighbor, Jarrod Domingos, who lives in the house his parents built, did not evacuate when the River Fire burned within 400 yards of his front door and waited with water trucks to defend his property in case the blaze jumped the firebreak.

“It was a lot of sleepless nights,” Domingos said.

When it was finally over, Domingos knew the area would need many small showers to stabilize the soil. So when a big storm was forecast for this week, he became nervous. Domingos and some of his neighbors went to Google Maps and calculated acreage of the drainage of the valley above his property. He decided it was small enough not to panic.

“It's never an off-season when you're coming off a disaster,” said Domingos, whose home survived. “This is all to do with the fire. There’s just no cover up top. It looks like the moon up there.”