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Southern California to feel effects of the Thomas Fire for years, if not decades, experts say

By Jennifer Fabiano, AccuWeather staff writer
January 21, 2018, 4:15:45 PM EST

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The Thomas Fire raged through Southern California for over a month, from Dec. 4 to Jan. 12. While the cause is still unknown, the fire and its consequences have wreaked havoc on the lives of residents in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

As the largest fire in California history, the Thomas Fire burned 281,893 acres and destroyed 1,063 structures in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, according to InciWeb.

Heavy rain on Jan. 10 led to even more destruction in Southern California. Mudslides, flooding and debris flows caused property and roadway damage, which are still being inspected. The winter storm led to 20 deaths and 28 injuries, according to the County of Santa Barbara Jan. 18 Incident Update.

Mudslides

In this Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018 photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, shows a semi-tractor trailer stuck in mud on U.S. Highway 101, in Montecito, Calif. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)


In Santa Barbara County, the immediate top priority is locating the three residents that still remain missing, according to Amber Anderson, a public information officer for the Santa Barbara Fire Department.

“Through the recovery, we’re looking obviously to start cleaning up, but we’re looking for those three missing people whose chances of survival continue to dwindle every single day,” Anderson said.

Thomas Fire, Mudslide by the numbers


While loss of life and property remain at the forefront of the agenda, below are some other immediate and longer-lasting impacts facing Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in the fire's aftermath.

Initial recovery

The Local Assistance Center was opened Jan. 17 in Santa Barbara. The center, which is staffed by state and federal disaster relief employees, serves as a single point location in which community members can look to in order to identify resources to recover and rebuild.

The center can offer housing assistance, as well as assistance with other needs including medical and dental care, childcare, funeral and burial and essential household items, to individuals who were impacted by the fire and the subsequent mudslide, according to Brandi Richard, a public affairs officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“The most important part of recovery for individuals who were impacted is for them to register for assistance so they can start the process of recovery and have access to all of the assistance that’s available to them,” Richard said.

Registration for assistance is open for 60 days from the declaration and can be done over the phone, online or at the assistance center.

On Jan. 9, a Boil Water Notice was issued for most Montecito Water Customers. The Montecito Water District began the super-chlorination of its water on Jan. 18 in order to properly disinfect the water. Montecito residents are advised to limit prolonged contact with water until informed that the water treatment is complete.

Thomas Fire

In this Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, file photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, flames from a back firing operation underway rise behind a home off Ladera Lane near Bella Vista Drive in Santa Barbara, Calif. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP, File)


Air quality

Air quality was a prominent health concern during and directly after the fires.

During the first week of the Thomas Fire, the air quality was recorded in the “hazardous” range at the Santa Barbara station, according to Lyz Hoffman, a public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District (SBCAPCD). “Very unhealthy” and “unhealthy” conditions were recorded at other monitoring stations during the first week and longer.

During the times of the fire, it was recommended that those who could not evacuate, especially children, elderly persons and patients with respiratory illness, wear N95 masks. Installing a HEPA filter in your home was also a common recommendation.

While the health risk is now over, Hoffman warned that specific at-risk patients may experience sustained health concerns from breathing smoky air. Also, ash could remain a threat as well.

“Future wind events can stir up ash, so it would be a good idea for people to keep N95 masks on hand in case conditions warrant needing them down the road.”

Hoffman recommends continuing to check air quality conditions on the SBCAPCD website.

"The Thomas Fire produced unusually high concentrations of particles over an extended period of time,” Hoffman said. “People experiencing continued symptoms due to smoke exposure should talk to their doctors.”

Inspections

Damages from the floods and mudslides are still being assessed. The Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management released an interactive map, which allows property owners to access the individual damage assessment data for their homes and businesses. The map, continuously updated, indicated inspections are currently 95 percent complete.

According to the Associated Press, California officials say key coastal highway has reopened after nearly 2-week closure due to being swamped by the deadly mudslides.

Watershed work

One of the main focuses in preventing further damage is assessing the actual damage done to the vegetation of the burned areas, according to Scott McLean, the deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE).

“Because of the fires that we had in October and December, there is no vegetation, so there is nothing to hold that water there and it’s just running off the hillside,” McLean said.

As a result, the ground is not staying in place because it does not have the roots or the vegetation to hold it in place. The resulting mudslides cause extreme damage downslope and also spill a lot of silt into the waterways and drainages, according to McLean.

“One thing just compounds the other,” McLean said.

CAL FIRE and the local teams are going into these areas and cleaning out the waterways of debris, so that the water coming off the hillsides is able to flow and have a clean exit.

“We’re also trying to prevent the flooding, which would cause further damage,” McLean said, adding that the wildfire effects on the land can last for years if enough rain falls.

Scorched California

In this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, firefighters follow a hose line while walking rugged and scorched terrain below E. Camino Cielo near Gibraltar Road in Santa Barbara, Calif., Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)


Long-term planning

“We’re going to have a lot of work ahead of us when it comes to the rebuilding phase and looking at permitting and planning and how we move forward to avoid any sort of disaster like this in the long term,” Anderson said.

Locations of debris basins and creeks, as well as the proximity of houses to each, will have to be reconsidered, according to Anderson.

“We expect on our end a lot of changes to come,” Anderson said. “Maybe not immediately but there’s going to be a lot of long-term effects from that standpoint.”

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Changes to evacuation orders

Evacuation orders and warnings appeared to play a role in the recent disasters, according to Anderson, and will also have to be reanalyzed.

“Those have never been static,” Anderson said. “We’re constantly adjusting it.”

Building codes and construction will also have to be reconsidered to determine how to diminish the amount of damaged and destroyed property.

“All in all, there’s going to be a lot of work ahead of us, especially here locally with this disaster and where we move forward, and it’s not going to be overnight,” Anderson said.

She said that procedures will be studied and adjusted over the next several years, if not decades, because of these recent disasters.

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