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Northern California communities feel disaster whiplash after wildfires, threat of mudslides

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Scott Rodd
/
CapRadio
A sign along Highway 50 warns of rock slides heading into the mountains.

The precipitation is desperately needed to combat California's severe drought. But it comes with a trade-off in communities that endured wildfires. Heavy rain and snowfall means an increased chance of mudslides, rockslides and flash-flooding.

The radio’s smooth jazz playing inside the Silver Fork gas station on Highway 50 belied the inclement weather outside.

“You just look at the river and it’s ashy, black water, but surging,” said Amy Cutrer, who works at the station in the Sierra Nevada foothill town of Kyburz.

The area saw nearly 10 inches of rain between the weekend and into Monday, according to the National Weather Service. Not far up the road, the rain turned to heavy snow.

About two months ago, emergency officials were evacuating this same area’s residents — including Cutrer and her husband — as the Caldor Fire blazed along the Highway 50 corridor. Vegetation was brittle and dry; rivers were little more than a trickle.

The precipitation is desperately needed to combat California’s severe drought. But it comes with a trade-off in communities that endured wildfires. Heavy rain and snowfall means an increased chance of mudslides, rockslides and flash-flooding.

And climate scientists say more extreme weather swings are expected in the future, due to human-caused climate change.

102721silverforkgasstation.png
Scott Rodd
/
CapRadio
The Silver Fork gas station on Highway 50 is one of the last stops for drivers to pick up tire chains before heading over the mountains toward Lake Tahoe.

Cutrer only recently returned after evacuating during the Caldor Fire. She and her husband stayed at a friend’s house for about a month. They caught wind of the incoming storm system while unpacking their belongings back home.

“We all kind of anticipated mudslides, rockslides,” she said. “And there were all kinds of warnings popping up on my phone throughout the night, like be prepared to evacuate.”

Fortunately, those threats largely didn’t materialize. A rockslide on Highway 50 near Echo Summit shut down the roadway, but only for a short period of time.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA, told CapRadio that the dry conditions helped absorb much of the precipitation, reducing the risk of landslides.

While the storm brought record levels of rain in some areas, climate experts say more is needed in California.

“This is just a blip in terms of recovering from a major drought that we’ve been in,” said Craig Clements, professor of meteorology and climate science at San Jose State University. “We need to build up the snowpack, because that really helps us to fill the reservoirs.”

Cal Fire says this major storm system doesn’t end the fire season, either.

“It helps, but if it continues to be dry going forward, we’re going to be right back where we were...ready to burn at a moment’s notice,” said Issac Sanchez, Cal Fire battalion chief of communications

Sanchez notes that much of Southern California has seen very little precipitation.

Bryce Lovell, a Pollock Pines resident who evacuated for three weeks during the Caldor Fire, acknowledged the increased risks posed by these extreme weather events. But he said living in the Sierra Nevada has always demanded resilience.

“The power goes out, you can cook on your wood stove … you’ve got fuel, you’ve got canned goods,” he said. “It’s just about making sure you’re prepared.”

Copyright 2021 CapRadio