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New Study Shows Potential Growing For More Frequent Debris Flows Like Deadly 2018 Montecito Disaster

A new study cautions post-wildfire debris flows like the one which decimated Montecito in 2018 are going to become more common.  Researchers think climate change is creating longer fire seasons, and shorter, more intense rainy seasons.

They say we need to do studies now to identify high risk areas, instead of trying to respond after a major wildfire sweeps through a region.  The massive 2017 Thomas Fire, and the Montecito Debris Flow were among the key reason  researchers did the study.

Jason Keane is a Hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.  He’s the lead author of the new study.

Keane says we can expect small slides, and debris flows every year.  But, he says looking at historical data, they now think Southern California will have a big one which will destroy or damage buildings every ten to 13 years.

The hydrologist says we should think about these catastrophic slides like earthquakes.  We don’t know exactly when or where they will happen, but since we can predict the frequency, we should be identifying potential high risk areas.  Keane says we do it for brush fires, but not for potential debris flows.

The USGS researcher says the problem now is that we are reactive.  There’s a major fire, and then a scramble to assess the mud and debris flow danger.  And, when you have situations like the late season Thomas Fire, there is no time to do the in-depth research which is really needed to help prepare at-risk areas.

The researcher says based on what climatologists are saying, there is an urgency for these type of disaster preparedness studies.  He says the science shows they will become more frequent.

Keane says the technology is improving, but just like experts try to assess areas for wildfire potential, and plan for it, we should be doing then same for the slides, and debris flows which could come in the aftermath.  Those efforts take time, and money, and aren’t commonly done now.

The research paper was just published in the science journal Earth’s Future.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral. 
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