Flash flood watch issued ahead of what could be the strongest storm of the year

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SAN FRANCISCO — Light rain fell in some parts of Northern California Wednesday ahead of a Pacific storm expected to bring heavy rain and strong winds that could unleash mudslides to the site of the deadliest wildfire in state history.

There could be water level rises on small rivers and creeks and debris flows in burn scars areas, including Butte County. That’s where a November wildfire killed 86 people and destroyed nearly 15,000 homes.

The storm is expected to arrive Wednesday afternoon and continue into Thursday.

An evacuation warning was in place for Pulga, a canyon community in Northern California. Its neighbor, the town of Paradise, was virtually incinerated two months ago by the Camp fire that killed 86 people and destroyed nearly 15,000 homes.

The National Weather Service issued a flood watch for the county beginning late Wednesday afternoon.

“If flooding occurs, this can quickly become a dangerous and life-threatening situation,” the Butte County Sheriff’s Office warned.

The north could see the strongest storm of the year with heavy rain in the San Francisco Bay Area leading to a widespread flash flood watch beginning in the afternoon. Flood and high wind watches were scheduled for the Sacramento area, with the weather service warning that gusts could lead to power outages, downed trees and tough driving conditions.

A blizzard warning for much of the Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe was set to go into effect Wednesday night, with meteorologists predicting as much of 5 feet (1.5 meters) of snow in upper elevations and wind gusts of up to 100 mph (161 kph) on ridgetops.

In the mountainous community of Truckee where it snowed on Tuesday, residents were preparing for the storm by clearing driveways and buying wood and food in case they have to stay indoors.

“It took my husband an hour to get to Safeway last week because there were so many people and no one could get home,” Whitby Bierwolf told KCRA. “You just need to have an alternate plan and have enough stuff in your car because accidents happen.”

Dangerous and potentially life-threatening conditions were expected at elevations above 7,000 feet (2,133 meters), with high avalanche danger throughout the region.

A week of storms has left authorities concerned about the potential danger for thousands of people living in foothill and canyon areas devastated by last year’s wildfires. Immense areas of the state were razed by wind-whipped flames, leaving hillsides bare of vegetation that could stabilize soil and prevent mudslides.

Several thousand people heeded a mandatory evacuation order in Santa Barbara County on the Central Coast, where last year a sudden debris flow swept through Montecito, killing 23 people and destroying 100 homes.

Daphne Moore was among the evacuees.

“It’s a complete drag but it’s better than dying in a mud debris flow,” she told KNBC-TV.

However, the rain that fell Tuesday wasn’t heavy enough to cause disaster and the county lifted the order Tuesday evening. More rain was expected Wednesday but not enough to be a serious threat, officials said.

Some mandatory evacuations remained in the Malibu area of Los Angeles County and voluntary evacuations were in place for some parts of Ventura County. Both were affected by November’s Woolsey Fire that destroyed more than 1,500 homes and killed four people.

In the community of Bell Canyon in Ventura County, Paul Manion was busy filling sandbags.

“It’s something we have to do. I mean, if the water comes, it comes,” Manion told KABC-TV. “Everything around our house burned. All the houses around our house burned. But it’s the hillsides that we’re worried about.”

Others refused to leave.

In Malibu, sheriff’s deputies armed with clipboards went door-to-door at the high-risk Paradise Cove mobile home park. Julie Sturgess signed a declaration that she wouldn’t evacuate.

“I have lived here since 1971, and there has been a lot of rain over the years,” she told the Los Angeles Times.

Beaver Valenzuela told KABC-TV that he’s survived fiercer storms and wouldn’t leave until he was convinced there was more immediate danger.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

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