VENTURA, Calif. (BP) — Deadly mudslides driven by intense rain evacuated Springs of Life Church Jan. 9, just a month after it served as a staging area for firefighters battling the massive Thomas wildfire.
The Southern Baptist church sits just inside a mandatory evacuation area, according to the Santa Barbara County Joint Information Center, where walls of mud rushed parched, barren land unable to absorb sudden torrential rains before daybreak Jan. 9. The mudslides killed at least 15 people and injured 25 others, the Associated Press reported today (Jan. 10), as rescue workers continued to search for bodies and survivors. Emergency responders had rescued about 50 by midday.
The mudslides are just what Gold Coast Baptist Association Director of Missions Vern Hancock said he feared after the 440-acre Thomas fire stopped just short of Springs of Life’s campus.
“Our only concern at this point is that the ground covering is gone and when the rains come, there will be a greater potential of mudslides in that area,” Hancock told Baptist Press Dec. 7. “This has been a problem in the past as well.”
Hancock had been unable to reach Springs of Life pastor Doug Jones today, but told BP he assumed the church of about 50 worshippers heeded evacuation warnings. Access roads to the church were closed while rescue teams searched through mud as deep as five-feet.
Skies have cleared since the heaviest rainfall in Santa Barbara County, including more than a half-inch that fell in five minutes in Montecito, and nearly an inch of rain fell in 15 minutes in Carpinteria, AP reported.
Both are wealthy communities that would not need disaster relief, California Southern Baptist Convention disaster relief director Mike Bivins told BP. Still, Southern Baptist volunteers are on standby.
“We have people down in the area that are on alert to deploy if we need to,” he said, “but at this point it doesn’t look like it has affected homes where the people would really need help. And those homes that washed down the hill, they’re gone and there’s not much we can do.”
Bivins, like Hancock and BP, had been unable to reach by telephone the one Southern Baptist church in the evacuation area and its pastor Doug Jones. A disaster relief volunteer consulted last night, Bivins said, was confident the church was safe. No other Southern Baptist church facilities are in the evacuation zone.
“If we get more rain and in a charred area, there could be some [church buildings] in the Ojai Valley that are at the bottom of a hill [burned by the Thomas fire],” Bivins said. “But I think right now, we’re at least out of imminent danger. It could be that later this winter, there could be more saturating rains. But it seems that the rain has moved out of the area.”
Anxiety is typical during the rainy season in communities burned by wildfires, Bivins said.
“There’s a lot of anxiety because the fire burned all of the vegetation that stabilizes the soil,” Bivins said. “This is one of the first saturating rains that we’ve had [this season] that came so quickly on soil that was totally just ash, so it created a mudflow, ash flow.”
Typically, rainfall accumulations in the area are not as severe, he said.