California hit with debris flow following largest wildfire in modern history

by Zachary Boetto

Parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties experienced the largest wildfire in California’s modern history, followed by destructive debris flow at the start of 2018. CNN states that together the Thomas Fire and debris flow in Montecito caused 23 fatalities, including one firefighter. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed.

CNN reports that the Thomas Fire rounded off what was the costliest year for wildfires in U.S. history, causing $10 billion in damage.

The wildfire broke out on Dec. 4, 2017 around 6 p.m. in the Santa Paula Canyon Area near Thomas Aquinas College, according to the Ventura County Fire Department. The Thomas Fire burned an estimated total of 281,900 acres of land—larger than the size of New York City, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco combined, according to CNN.

The Santa Barbara Independent states that Santa Paula residents believe a transformer near a home exploded on the evening of Dec. 4, and with winds reaching up to 60 mph the fire began. According to Cal Fire, more than 2,800 firefighters worked to contain the fire over the course of almost six weeks. About $177 million was spent fighting the massive fire until it was fully contained on Jan. 12.

CNN reports that the Thomas Fire rounded off what was the costliest year for wildfires in U.S. history, causing $10 billion in damage. An overall lack of precipitation during the fall and winter made way for the dry terrain, according to Cal Fire. Vegetation naturally helps absorb the rain as it hits the ground, but because the Thomas Fire consumed so much brush and shrubs across the region, the conditions were prime for mudslides.

Classes were cancelled on Dec. 6 at the main CI campus, as well as the Thousand Oaks and Goleta Campuses. The Goleta Campus remained closed through Dec. 17 to 23 due to poor air quality from the smoke. Students on CI’s main campus around the time of the fire took to the well atop the hill behind Arroyo Hall to watch the flames along the Santa Susana Mountains.

According to CNN, a downpour of rain following the fire on Jan. 9 led to mudslides in the Santa Barbara hills of Montecito. The mudslides killed 21 people and left many without homes.

According to Ed Keller, a geomorphologist at University of California, Santa Barbara, the Thomas Fire seared the terrain and the sustained heat baked the plant life and chaparral. This turned the ground into what functioned like a sheet of glass, which then acted as a slide for mud and
debris. Due to Montecito’s downslope from deposits of shale, a type of rock which crumbles with ease, the mud and momentum was enough to create a slide.

The debris flow, dubbed the “Montecito Mudslides,” shut down Highway 101 for nearly two weeks. According to Visit California, the closure cost Santa Barbara County an estimated $949,000 in visitor spending. After weeks of clearing debris and mud from the freeway, Highway 101 reopened on Jan. 21.

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