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Santa Cruz Mountains Residents Wary as Storms Drench Slide-Prone Burn Scars

SWANTON (KPIX) -- With rain systems again cycling through Northern California, attention is turning back to the scene of the fires that raged in August. In Santa Cruz County, that means some residents have already been warned about debris flow dangers.

"Yeah, we're prepared for this," said Cal Fire CZU unit chief Ian Larkin. "We're watching the weather very closely."

Even before the CZU Fire was fully contained, Cal Fire was paying close attention to the ground beneath the fire and how it might respond to heavy rain.

"We had a group come out and they did a watershed evaluation," Larkin explained. "They determined that there was significant potential for debris flows in areas of the burn scar."

"There were 25 houses in the subdevelopment," said Keith Gordon, surveying the street where he grew up. "Only two made it."

Today, Gordon took one last look at the site of his childhood home before he relocates his family to the Pacific Northwest.

"I mean, it looks completely different than how I knew it," he said. "They've probably taken out 50 percent of the trees. They've done all sorts of landscaping here to kind of slow down any runoff."

County crews have been setting up protection for waterways and culverts but Cal Fire is worried about the possibility of much larger problems. They think extremely heavy rain in some areas could cause debris flows large enough to endanger entire homes.

"We have developed zones, evacuation zones specific to those areas," Larkin said. "And we've notified all the public. There's actually an application that the community has been made aware of, where they can go and look for the specific zone and see if they are affected by it."

Those areas are under what is called a "debris flow hazard advisory" which could change with the weather.

"When we're looking at the storms, if it is a significant storm coming in, we may have to elevate to the next level and request for folks to evacuate," Larkin said.

The spread of blue-shaded areas on an evacuation map speaks to the size of the CZU Complex wildfire along the coast, all the way up to the San Mateo County line.

Emergency officials think that, as more rain systems come through, they will get a better idea of how the soil is going to respond to weather and where the greatest risk might be. With that, they think they will probably be able to scale back the number of areas considered at risk.

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