Caltech scientists working on early detection warning system after Montecito mudslide

PASADENA, Calif. (KABC) -- Caltech is weighing in on the scope of the Montecito mudslide after geologists confirmed the massive runoff of boulders had such an impact that it set of motion sensors like an earthquake.

"In this case there were a series of Caltech seismometers in this area that did register this event," said Professor Michael Lamb, a specialist in debris flow.

Images of the recordings are embargoed until the Caltech study is complete. Earth scientists are trying to create a model for predicting large debris flows.

The condition of the slopes in the Thomas Fire burn area is graphically displayed on aerial imagery generated by AeroComputers Airborne Systems based in Oxnard, which was viewed by Lamb this week.

It shows the impact area before and after the storm's destruction.

Lamb said the pictures reflect a landscape that is still unstable and dangerous depending on the coming rainfall.

"I would say the next storm has the potential to be devastating as well," he said.

Caltech seismologists are examining ways to alert neighbors in debris prone areas. It would work similar to what exists for earthquakes. They said even a 2-minute warning could save lives.

"It might give people enough time to scramble to their roof. Get upstairs. Get to higher ground. Move away from the creek. Two minute isn't a lot but it is something that we're working on," Lamb said.

The next step for scientific investigation is low tech. Hiking hills and digging under sediment will reveal how much loose material remains atop the bedrock. Lamb said that material can come down suddenly in heavy rain regardless of whether the slopes have burned.

"In heavy rainfall it is something that anyone who is living up against a steep mountain channel or gulley should be aware of. It is not just a fire thing," he said.
Copyright © 2021 KABC-TV. All Rights Reserved.