Northern California Fire Crews Switch Focus from Blazes to Mudslides
Even though the wildfires that ravaged the North Bay region of California are now under control, there still looms the equally devastating threat of mudslides throughout the area. Many of the scorched hillsides have been reduced to ash and debris, just waiting for the rainy winter season that could turn them into deadly mudslides. The threat is real enough that some of the areas with steeper terrain have been ordered to evacuate.
Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director for Cal Fire, spoke with the Napa Valley Registry and explained that part of their task in the clean up after the fires was to consult with hydrologists and forestry experts to examine the damaged watersheds. They assess the soil burn severity. A hot fire bakes the soil like a brick, and then rainwater can’t soak in. The runoff results in erosion and debris flows.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported also that the most vulnerable spots include Sonoma County’s Mark West Creek area, the ridge between Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley, particularly Mount Veeder, Hogback Mountain and Hood Mountain, and parts of Napa County around Atlas Peak and Mount George.
Several different resources and agencies, both state and federal, will come to bear in preparing for what many think are inevitable incidences which include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Geological Survey, and the state’s forestry and fire services. Their respective functions will hopefully serve to predict, prepare, and ultimately mitigate the potential damage as storms approach and prone areas are identified.
While the scientists work to predict and identify, fire crews and forestry units will concentrate on clearing hillsides of fallen trees and other debris to reduce the amount of deadly ingredients typically found in mudslides.
Since they are on the cusp of the rainy season, there is an urgency to the preparations, leaving much of the residents unsettled and afraid that the worst is yet to come, given the unpredictability of where rains will fall and in what quantities, triggering the mudslides.
Another concern is how much of the infrastructure, such as emergency roads and retaining walls, have already been damaged from the fires, adding more labor to the scramble for preparation. California crews are hard at work cleaning up these roadways, repaving them, and dislodging fallen trees from streams and waterways in order to prepare for what may be quite the rainy season. Everyone is hoping it won’t be as severe as 2016-17, one of the most voluminous rainy seasons on record.
State fire agencies are advising people to make preparations on their private property, some of it remote, by laying down straw or mulch as a means to absorb the excess water that otherwise would have been soaked up by the vegetation which has been burned away. Crews are in the midst of installing wattles, straw rolls also designed to soak up water through the area. The one positive is that many of the fire lines scored into the ground by forestry units during the fires can now be used as wattle trenches.
While there are many organizations involved in preventing the worst from happening, it’s worth recognizing that much of the heavy, manual work will be performed by fire departments and agencies as they preemptively respond to potential emergencies that have nothing to do with fire. This is just another indication of how dedicated these individuals are in service of their communities.