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Why Northern, Central Utah is more vulnerable to mudslides now

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'Hydrophobic' soil, climate change may be to blame, experts say

NORTHERN UTAH (ABC4 News)- Heavy rainfall Thursday wreaked havoc on vulnerable soil in northern and central Utah, causing mudslides in several areas. But what is making the region so prone to slides lately?

National Weather Service hydrologist Brian McInerney told ABC4 News there are several factors that played a role in Thursday’s slides, and in previous slides in Utah County earlier this summer.

One factor is burn scaring from recent wildfires that weakened the soil, making it “hydrophobic,” McInerney said.

“Last year was such a big fire year, we’ve got about six or seven burn scars that as we see can cause mudslides that run into homes, can close roads,” he said. Experts said people who live up canyons and near benches in Utah are most at risk.

Burn scars aren’t the only vulnerable areas, though. Highly vegetated Little Cottonwood Canyon also saw a mudslide Thursday, that brought mud and debris down the mountain due to heavy rainfall. McInerney said intense thunderstorms, which are being strengthened due to climate change, are proving even non-burn areas prone to slides.

1.2 inches fell in 45 minutes in Little Cottonwood Canyon Thursday. In a weaker storm system, vegetation would have shielded the soil from the intense and voluminous rain. But given the intensity and volume of Thursday’s storm, the soil became too saturated to hold, McInerney said.

Experts also said because of Utah’s heavy fire year in 2018, it will take a few more years for the soil to be fully healed in some areas – meaning the risk for slides continues.

“It’s phenomenal how much destruction there can be, and it’s all based on volume of rain and intensity of rain falling over the scar,” McInerney said.

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