Pounding waves sent water, mud and rocks surging over Ventura County beaches Tuesday, closing surfside campsites and spurring homeowners to prepare for a major storm expected to hit the area tonight.
At Emma Wood State Beach north of Ventura, high surf sent waves crashing onto several campsites and forced the evacuation of campers.
Wes Chapin, a spokesman for the California State Parks Department, said the north campground would remain closed at least until Friday to allow crews to clean up expected mud and rocks.
Park rangers also closed a portion of Thornhill Broome Beach south of Point Mugu on Tuesday after high surf swept a blanket of mud and sand onto two campsites, officials said.
Meteorologists said gale-force winds are circling the approaching storm, which is expected to dump heavy rain tonight, Thursday and Friday.
"This storm is big, it's powerful, and it's coming straight at us," said Tim McClung, a meteorologist who works as the warning coordinator at the National Weather Service office in Oxnard. "We'll be getting the full brunt of it.'
The normally cautious weather service said the probability of rain tonight and Thursday is "100%." Forecasters said as much as 3 inches of rain could fall on coastal cities, with up to twice that much in foothill communities.
Runoff is expected to pool in low-lying areas, but the main threat will come from the sea, McClung said.
"With the full moon, the tides are high, and the storm could generate waves as tall as 20 feet," he said. "There's a real danger of coastal flooding."
As forecasters charted the storm Tuesday, residents from Thousand Oaks northward prepared for the front, which could pack winds of up to 25 mph near the coast and up to 40 mph in the mountains.
Nearly three years after waves pushed through their beachfront vacation house on Old Rincon Highway, Rick and Jill O'Hara took advantage of the clear skies Tuesday to meet with crews and check on how their new cement sea wall weathered Tuesday's high surf.
So far so good, Rick O'Hara said.
"We did well and the wall performed beautifully," he said. "We enjoyed watching the waves. It's all worked out for the best."
Up and down the Ventura County coast Tuesday, 6- to 8-foot waves were the rule as high tide peaked about 8:15 a.m. More big waves, though not quite as large or intense as Tuesday's breakers, should arrive about 9 a.m. today, Tanabe said.
The waves have been generated by energy from both the departing storm and the front approaching from the north, Tanabe said.
A few miles north of the O'Haras at Ventura County Fire Station 25, Capt. Edward Gavirati said he had enough sand and bags in storage to fill 35 bags. It wasn't a lot, but so far there have been few inquiries from residents living in the expensive beachfront homes that the station serves.
"When Mother Nature comes, there really isn't much you can do," said Gavirati, who will drive through the nearby beach community and the foothills when the rain arrives looking for potential trouble spots. "Most of the residents here have sea walls."
Flood damage also poses potential risks for residents on the hillsides in Thousand Oaks. Those same homes were in jeopardy just a few weeks ago during the 600-acre North Ranch wildfire. The blaze swept within 100 feet of multimillion-dollar homes near the North Ranch Country Club.
The fire left the land barren of the thick brush that can keep hillsides from sliding in a rainstorm.
Mark Towne of the Conejo Open Space Conservation Agency, a joint powers agency between Thousand Oaks and the Conejo Recreation and Park District, said crews have spent the past three days filling sand bags and stacking them alongside trenches near many of the homes.
But whether the sandbagging effort will protect the neighborhoods from flooding during a storm is hard to say, Towne said. "It depends on the intensity of the rainfall and the amount of rainfall," he said.
Times staff writer Eric Malnic and correspondent Alex Katz contributed to this report.
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Forecasters are predicting high surf over the next three days because of a storm that was approaching Southern California on Tuesday. Wave sensors attached to the Harvest oil platform near Point Conception, along with other offshore weather buoys, help Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla provide three-day wave forecasts. Exceptionally high tides accompanying the large swell could trigger coastal flooding.