Mudslides force cutback on Southern California passenger services

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Montecito, Calif.
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LOS ANGELES — At least 15 people are confirmed dead in Santa Barbara county, Calif., and the search continues for more mudslide victims in the rugged canyons of Montecito, Calif., a wealthy enclave along Union Pacific’s ex-Southern Pacific Coast Line, just east of the city of Santa Barbara. Amtrak service, including the Coast Starlight and numerous Pacific Surfliner trains is suspended, parallel U.S. Route 101 is closed, and transportation to and from the area is so challenging that a local operator is running scheduled boat service between Ventura and Santa Barbara, Calif.

The mudslides are the result of a fierce storm off the Pacific Ocean that pounded the area north and west of Los Angeles on Tuesday. Days earlier, firefighters had been battling the 280,000-acre Thomas wildfire, which is the largest in modern California history, and has destroyed at least a 1,000 buildings and killed a firefighter, so far.

Typically, wildland fires destroy the vegetation that holds soil in place. Intense heat from the flames changes the topsoil and prevents it from absorbing water. Heavy rains started Tuesday, with one station in the hills of Santa Barbara county recording 5 inches of rainfall in the fire burn area.

Early Tuesday, walls of mud raced down the narrow streets and canyons of Montecito and Santa Barbara, destroying buildings, tossing automobiles, and carrying boulders and debris to the low-lying areas where Route 101 and the parallel railroad became buried. Culverts along the highway and railroad were clogged with debris, causing massive overflows. Television footage showed tracks buried but little evidence of undermining, and officials were hoping to have the railroad open by Friday.

Coast Starlight service was terminated at Emeryville, near Oakland, Calif., and Pacific Surfliner service was terminating at Oxnard, Calif. An isolated service also operated from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara.

Freight service on the Coast Line consists of unit oil trains and one daily manifest train. There were no reports of detours.

Post-fire mudslides are not unusual. What was unusual in this instance was the short time period — about a month — between the fire and the heavy rain.

Flood warnings and evacuation advisories had been issued for the burn area Monday night, but many residents apparently ignored the warnings.
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