Officials in weather-battered southern California have issued mandatory evacuation orders affecting thousands of people as a rainstorm threatened to unleash mudslides.
“This is a challenging storm,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a press conference.
“Please know we do not take evacuations lightly,” he added. “We are issuing this mandatory evacuation order because there is a risk to life and property”.
The area has been lurching from one meteorological crisis to another in recent months. The largest wildfire in California history, the Thomas Fire, scorched more than 280,000 acres and incinerated more than 1,000 structures in December.
As a consequence, vegetation that helped anchor earth in place was burned from hillsides when torrential rains arrived a month later and sent mud and debris thundering into the town of Montecito. The mudslides killed 17 people, destroyed homes and set first responders scrambling to rescue people trapped in a sea of mud and debris.
With forecasters predicting that a gathering storm would dump an inch or more of rain across the Los Angeles area – the first major storm since the January mudslides – officials ordered evacuations for people living near the areas burned by the Thomas Fire and a pair of other blazes. Between 25,000 and 30,000 people live in the evacuation area.
“You should start leaving now,” Mr Brown said, adding that sheriff’s deputies were being dispatched to areas at the highest risk. “Please do not wait for someone to contact you in person in order to leave”.
Rainfall is expected to be heaviest in the early morning hours, and Mr Brown said he wanted to avoid a situation in which people are forced to flee hazard in the middle of the night.
“We want everyone to be out of the area and out of harm’s way by nightfall,” Mr Brown said. After January’s devastation, he added, “we cannot take any unnecessary chances”.
While the incoming storm was not expected to be as powerful as the one that set off deadly mudslides, with officials citing a low to moderate risk of debris flow, the sheriff’s department warned that it could still set off flash flooding and render some roads impassable.