Following the devastating and deadly, massive mudslide that swamped Highway 101, turning it into a mucky trail of brown, and tore through Montecito in Santa Barbara County last week, the fear of natural disaster in the wake of wildfires seems to be on everyone’s mind. Sonoma County officials are saying that the mudslide risk in the Santa Rosa and Sonoma County area is low, however, residents should still remain alert and prepared throughout the continuing rainy season.
Paul Lowenthal, assistant fire marshal for the Santa Rosa Fire Department, said while he can’t speak for all of Sonoma County, he can report that there have been no instances of mudslides at this time.
“In Santa Rosa we have done really well during the last several storm systems that have moved through and we anticipated with this most recent rain event that we were supposed to have the most significant rain of the season, which prompted the flash flood watch in Fountaingrove based on the hazards of the burn scars and the potential for mudflows in hillside communities. Fortunately, we haven’t really had a lot of rain that would typically cause those concerns,” Lowenthal said.
On the other hand, the wealthy enclave of Montecito, home to Ellen and Oprah, had received a detrimental amount of rain prior to the mudslides, where earth was already eroded away from the recent December fires, making it ripe for mudslide conditions.
“They’ve had a lot of rain in a short amount of time. We haven’t really had that much rain and we had a dry period after October, we’ve had grass start to grow. So we’ve had time to put measures in place to protect our community,” Lowenthal said on the differing conditions in Northern and Southern California.
The drier weather in Sonoma County has also been beneficial to help prepare storm drains and to place erosion control measures throughout the area.
“We thought this (the recent rains) was going to be our first big test of the systems and the rains never really materialized like we anticipated and we also didn’t get the winds we thought we were going to get,” Lowenthal said. “So it’s kind of a double edged sword. The last thing we want to do is put our community at risk, however, it has been beneficial to see that our systems are going to function the way we anticipate them.”
After this last storm to hit the Bay Area, Lowenthal said the only thing the department noticed was some “minor ponding” near storm drains, a significantly tamer response to the rain than what was seen in Santa Barbara County.
However, Lowenthal advised to not become complacent and to always be prepared for a disaster of any kind, whether it be by having an emergency plan in place, or signing up for emergency alerts.
“We’ve done a ton of outreach in our city and our community and we’ve provided people with a map where they can physically check the location they live in or around the burn scars and that map identifies whether or not you’re in a high or low risk area. There are other physical measures that people can take such as getting sand bags or grass wattles, but we also encourage people to sign up for the alerts, whether its Nixle or SoCo so they can be notified if there is a need to evacuate,” Lowenthal said.
According to news reports, only around 10-15 percent of those in the Montecito area heeded the voluntary/mandatory evacuation notice. As reported in an ABC News article, sheriff’s deputies had to go door to door to some 7,000 homes telling people to evacuate.
When asked if she would listen to an evacuation notice, Taylor Newman, a Sonoma County resident who goes to school in Rohnert Park, said she would most definitely heed any warning.
“Like with the fires, we left when they told us to. If they are telling us to evacuate then it’s obviously for a good reason,” Newman said.
In the event of down phone or power lines in a disaster, Lowenthal said residents would be notified of evacuation by physical notification, with a knock on the door from a first responder.
“The big difference between what’s happening down there and what’s happening up here, is they did not get nearly the amount of time that we’ve had to put a lot of those measures in place and they also got a significant amount more rain than what we received,” Lowenthal said.