The South Coast avoided mudslides this week after an “atmospheric river” of heavy rain and high winds threatened the area recently burned in the CZU Lightning Complex fire.
Early last week, officials began warning South Coast residents to prepare for evacuations due to reports of heavy rain to come. By Jan. 26, the evacuation warnings were upgraded to orders. A temporary evacuation shelter was established at Pescadero High School, where around 80 evacuees were put up in hotels, according to Red Cross spokesman Jim Burns. South Coast Community Emergency Response Team members were on the ground prior to the event, going door to door to tell people to get out.
Just one tree came down onto an unoccupied house in the Dearborn Park area, but no debris flow or flash flooding on the San Mateo County side materialized last week. All residents who evacuated did so safely, Loma Mar Volunteer Fire Department Chief Chris Conner said. The evacuation orders were downgraded to warnings, and then advisories by Friday.
“It was pretty much a normal storm,” Conner said. “We just got lucky that nothing happened. We didn't get the bullseye.”
In Kings Mountain, Fire Chief Jim Sullivan said his crew was facing the normal swell of calls during rain and wind events, with some flooding and rock slides plus a few trees, power lines and poles down in the area.
Residents across the county line in Santa Cruz County avoided deadly mudslides, too, although rain levels were even higher, prompting mass evacuations. But those farther to the south in Monterey County were not as lucky, as mud flows consumed a few dozen homes and cars, flooding roads and even taking out a sizable chunk of Highway 1.
Conner said that the two inches of rain per night blanketing the South Coast wasn’t enough to sweep the hillsides down, and the heavy northward winds had less of an effect on the more sheltered Loma Mar and Dearborn Park areas. He said he isn’t too worried about light rain continuing the rest of the week, either.
What concerned Conner the most was some residents’ reluctance to get out when the orders were issued. Conner knows just how serious debris flow in the Santa Cruz Mountains can get. He and his family survived the 1998 mudslide, but their home did not. Anyone who stays behind, Conner said, poses a risk to everyone else.
“The more people that use precaution to get out of an area, it takes relief off the rescuers,” Conner said.
This winter hasn’t been an easy one for residents living closest to the CZU burn area. Last month, high winds reignited the wildfire, which had been smoldering underground for months. The fire got as large as 15 acres in the Butano area but was quickly contained.
The high winds also downed trees whose root systems were damaged in the fire, toppling onto houses and cars and severely damaging at least three homes, Conner said. Loma Mar resident David McIntyre was asleep in his home when one giant tree crashed down on his groundskeeper’s car and the other on his home, just six feet from where he was sleeping.
Loma Mar resident Ken Armstrong’s house also fell victim to a large pine tree that took out three redwoods on its way down during the January wind storm. One tree hit the roof of his house, punching through his skylight. Both Armstrong and McIntyre came close to disaster during the wildfire too, as it smoldered in their yards and pushed up against their homes.
“This just to top things off,” Armstrong said. “I feel very fortunate. It could have been much worse. I think I’ve had enough for the next few years.”