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One year after the Thomas Fire burned through the mountains of Ventura County, the rains arrived—soothing the charred hillsides of Ventura and delivering much-needed water to an otherwise barren landscape.  The 2017 Thomas Fire engulfed more than 281,000 acres of land in flames and destroyed over  1,000 homes, earning the reputation of ‘the most destructive fire in modern California history’ along the way. According to National Forest officials, it took nearly 37 days to contain the inferno and in the year since its containment, more than half a million acres throughout California have burned. In the past two months alone, dozens of lives and thousands of properties across California have been lost to the hellish flames of the Camp and Woolsey Fires.

To say that the dampness is a welcome change, may be an understatement.  Whether listening to the light ‘pitter patter’ of sprinkling or the thick thudding melodies of a downpour, the past few weeks of rain have felt like a rebirthing for the Ventura residents who are starting to see patches of green sprout from the ashen hillsides. But for residents in the newly burned areas of Malibu, Calabasas, and Thousand Oaks the upcoming rainy season represents a looming threat of landslides and a potential for destruction in an already devastated area. 

As Southern Californians awoke to rainfall this past Thursday, Malibu residents who are still recovering from the recent Woolsey Fire, experienced a small landslide that closed several roads off of the Pacific Coast Highway.  Storms are in the forecast again for the coming weeks and though residents and city officials have already started lining their properties and highways with sandbags, debris flow is expected to impact the area. In the weeks that followed the Thomas fire, the world watched in horror as homes, highways, and businesses in Montecito, California were demolished by boulders and falling debris or flooded by thick mud. The LA Times reports that 19 people lost their lives in the mudslide that swept through the beach town.  The return of rain leaves many in Southern California fearful for the mudslides that seem imminent.

Causes of a Landslide aka Mudslide The terms landslide or mudslide (as the landslide is occasionally known) refer to the downward sloping movement of large masses of rocks, soil, mud, and other organic debris (think trees, ash, etc.). Since much of the brush and vegetation that would otherwise help anchor the soil gets destroyed by flames, fires pave the wave for landslides and make landscapes more prone to erosion. Winter rainfall which sometimes follows California’s autumn fire season, can saturate and weaken sloping drylands and result in the sudden downhill flow of debris. This means that mountainous regions are more susceptible to the devastation of a mudslide. In the wake of the Montecito landslides, geologists and city officials are still trying to identify the causes of the deadly slide. Hopes are high that their insight might help prevent the further loss of life in Malibu and Calabasas areas. 2018 has been a rough year for California. Fires, mass shootings, and elevated smoke levels have taken lives and threatened to take more.  As 2019 fast approaches, we at the Havasi Wilderness Foundation hope that no matter where you live, your families and homes are safe and that you find continued health and curiosity about the natural world. Fires and devastation can serve as a reminder to appreciate something as simple as a walk outside or the pitter patter of rain. We hope that this time before the new year is joyful and that it brings you the opportunity to explore your world and give thanks for it.

Hills in Agoura before the Woolsey Fire. Photo credit: Alex Havasi

The same hill in Agoura after the Woolsey Fire. Photo credit: Alex Havasi

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