California Rain Forecast: Flash Flood Watch, Mudslides Possible As Wildfires Still Burn

After weeks of wildfires ripping through the state, California might get some much-needed rain. While the rain may be beneficial to firefighting efforts and improving air quality, it may create another natural disaster, mudslides.

The National Weather Service (NWS) in Sacramento, California, forecasted rain would spread throughout Northern California on Wednesday. Heavy rainfall is also expected for Thursday night into Friday and the NWS cautioned residents that the wet storm systems increase the risk of debris flows in areas that have recently been burned by wildfires.

Heavy rain was expected to continue into Friday morning, along with heavy mountain snow, again increasing the risk of debris flow. From Wednesday until Sunday, the NWS forecasted parts of California damaged by the Camp Fire could see upwards of four inches of rain.

Along with areas affected by the Camp Fire, which began on November 8 and is still burning, the NWS issued a Flash Flood Watch for the areas affected previously by the Delta and Carr Fires and the Mendocino Complex Fire. The watch was put in place for Wednesday afternoon through Friday morning and the NWS warned that ash, mud and debris flows were possible for the burn scars.

Flash Flood Watch for the burn scars is in effect Wednesday afternoon through Friday morning. A Winter Storm Watch is in effect Wednesday Afternoon and Wednesday night above 6500 ft.

Ash, mud and debris flows possible for the burn scars. Accumulating snow above 6500 ft. #CAwx

— NWS Sacramento (@NWSSacramento) November 20, 2018

The weather forecast comes at an inopportune time, as heavy travel is expected for the Thanksgiving weekend. As a precaution, The Sacramento Bee reported officials advised travelers to be cautious particularly in the areas of:

  • The Camp Fire in the mountains above the Feather River in Butte and Plumas counties, and along Skyway and Highway 70.
  • The Carr Fire in Redding and areas west, including along Highway 299.
  • The Delta and Hirz fires along Interstate 5 between Shasta City and Redding.
  • The Mendocino Complex fire in the hills northwest of Clear Lake.

NBC meteorologist Kathryn Prociv said the worst case scenario would be if the rain caused mudslides reminiscent of those that hit Santa Barbara County in June. At least 15 people were killed in the area that was recently devastated by the Thomas Fire, according to CNBC. Within just weeks, Camp Fire has burned more than 150,000 acres and Prociv said without trees and a root system to soak up rain, there's nothing to stop boulders and debris from rolling downhill.

Sacramento City Fire Captain Keith Wade explained to NBC News that the rain could be helpful or hurtful depending on the amount. Just enough rain could hinder the Camp Fire from spreading, but more than three inches of rain could hinder relief efforts.

"This could bring difficulties in moving equipment in and out of the area and how crews can operate in remote areas. The rain changes everything," Wade told NBC News.

As of Wednesday morning, the Camp Fire killed 79 people and destroyed over 13,000 structures. Firefighting efforts were able to contain 70 percent of the fire and full containment was expected to be reached on November 30.

mudslides california wildfire
A line of burned out abandoned cars sit on the road after the Camp Fire moved through the area on November 9 in Paradise, California. Rain forecasted for the Thanksgiving weekend will hopefully stop the fire from spreading, but it could cause ash and mud to flow downhill. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Although the heavy rain brings the risk of mudslides to the area, it also will be beneficial to residents. Smoke from recent wildfires in California caused parts of California to experience very unhealthy and even hazardous air. The impending rainfall will help get rid of the wildfire smoke that has denigrated the air quality, according to the NWS.

"Where Californians have spent days engulfed in toxic wildfire smoke, incoming rain and wind will offer dramatic relief later this week," AccuWeather Meteorologist and air quality blogger Faith Eherts explained.

Rescue workers raced against the clock to complete recovery efforts before the storms hit on the basis that it could hinder their efforts. However, Shawn Boyd with California's Office of Emergency Services, told KCRA the rain could help rescue dogs make headway.

"You get rid of the dust, these dogs have a better chance at pinpointing and following their nose to where there may be remains," Boyd said.

Southern California is forecast to receive far less rain, but AccuWeather reported that the moisture will prevent the Woolsey Fire from spreading. The NWS in Los Angeles reported that areas could receive up to 1.25 inches and the main threats will be rockslides, mudslides and minor debris flows.

Rain still on track across SW Calif Wed afternoon into early Thu morning. Main threats will be rockslides, mudslides, minor debris flows across #WoolseyFire and #HillFire burn areas. Greatest threat along Hwy 1 and canyon roadways. #LArain #LAWeather #cawx

— NWS Los Angeles (@NWSLosAngeles) November 19, 2018

Since breaking out on November 8, the Woolsey Fire has burned through 96,949 acres and claimed the lives of three people. As of Tuesday evening, the fire was 96 percent contained and full containment was expected to be reached on Thursday.