Southern California on guard as heavy rains may trigger mudslides

March 22 (Reuters) - The threat of dangerous mudslides will grow on Thursday as a storm rolls through coastal California, where thousands have fled from homes near hillsides that were stripped of vegetation by massive wildfires.

Intense rains of up to an inch (3 cm) per hour was forecast on Thursday morning for Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, northwest of Los Angeles, where 25,000 people have evacuated in recent days, weather and local officials said.

"The storm has a lot of intensity behind it and has the potential to be life-threatening," said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara Fire Department. "The public, for the most part, has heeded the warnings for evacuations."

Wildfires last winter left California's coastline vulnerable to mudslides, by burning grass and shrubs that hold soil in place and baking a layer of earth that keeps rainwater from sinking deeply.

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Some 21 people were killed and dozens injured in mudslides on Jan. 9 after rain in and around the Santa Barbara County community of Montecito, 85 miles (137 km) northwest of Los Angeles.

The current storm began producing downpours on Tuesday night and continued on Wednesday. County officials said this storm is expected to produce far more rainfall than January's.

As California prepared for rain, the East Coast was digging out from the fourth major snowstorm this month, which closed schools, grounded flights and halted bus and train service across the region. Two people died in separate traffic crashes, local media reported. (Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, editing by Larry King)