Storm brings mud to fire areas

Storm brings mud to fire areas

 1 December 2007

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California, USA — Southern California got a break from its dry streak Friday with an unexpectedly powerful rainstorm that clogged the freeway commute, unleashed some small mudslides and forced officials in Orange County to evacuate canyon communities hit by October’s brush fires.

The storm produced half an inch to an inch of rain in the Los Angeles Basin and 1 to 2 inches in parts of Orange County, San Diego County and the Inland Empire. That’s not unusual for a heavy winter storm, but it felt more like a deluge in a region where the last rainy season was the driest on record.

Officials said that even a modest storm could prompt flooding and mudslides in areas burned in last month’s fires. Federal studies released last week warned of a “severe” threat to life, homes and drinking water supplies if sustained rains hit steep slopes charred by the fires.

Just after 1 p.m. Friday, authorities ordered residents to evacuate their homes in Modjeska Canyon, where the Santiago fire left hillsides dangerously denuded and vulnerable to mudslides. Some canyon residents returned to their homes late Friday night when authorities downgraded the order to voluntary.

In the canyon, streets were covered with thick, gooey mud, a foot deep in some spots, running down bare, steep slopes. Cars fish-tailed out as most residents heeded the evacuation order. For many, it was the second time in about a month that they were told to flee their homes. Just as during the fires, some stayed behind.

“When the firefighters leave, then I’ll leave,” said Ron Everett, as he watched the parade of cars on Modjeska Canyon Road.

Inside Fire Station 16, volunteer firefighter Vickie Scheibel busily answered phones and wrote down ever-changing rainfall totals on a chalkboard.

“Oh, God, we’re just overwhelmed, man,” Scheibel said.

Williams and part of Silverado Canyon, near Modjeska, were also evacuated, but those orders were downgraded to voluntary at nightfall.

In northern San Diego County, officials also worried about the vast burn areas. The National Weather Service issued a flash-flood warning –the most serious alert — in the areas burned by the Poomacha and Rice fires.

By afternoon, nearly 3 inches of rain had fallen on Palomar Mountain, which was besieged by the fires in October.

Officials placed so-called reverse 911 calls to nearly 6,000 homes in and near the areas burned by the Poomacha, Witch and Rice fires. In the Harris fire area to the south, 1,200 such calls were made. Residents were warned of the potential for mudslides and flash floods and told to watch weather reports.

“A lot of the areas out there are highly susceptible to debris flows, mud flows, rocks and debris coming down the steep canyons and hillsides,” said Miguel Miller, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in San Diego County. “The rain just doesn’t soak in.”

“The criteria for getting the earth to move a little bit in these burn areas is so small,” Miller added. “Even a wimpy storm can do it.”

The storm Friday was not wimpy, but it was far from a record storm. It came at the close of a month that nearly ended with no rain, and continued throughout the day. It was expected to subside early today.

“We had zero inches of rain until this storm,” said Bill Patzert, a climatologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. “It looked like we had a no-hitter going, but the last hitter at the bottom of the ninth all of a sudden got a hit.”

The last time downtown L.A. recorded more than an inch of rain in a single month was in April 2006. Since then, rain has been scarce. In mid-October, a pair of storms dumped 0.95 inches of rain over two days.

Friday’s storm dropped half an inch of rain downtown, nearly an inch in Santa Monica, 1.10 inches in Fullerton, 1.51 inches in Ontario, 1.75 inches in Riverside, 2 inches in Vista, 1.64 at Del Mar and nearly an inch at Orange County’s John Wayne Airport.

The storm caused havoc on Southland freeways, as rains mixed with oil to make roads slick.

There were 423 accidents from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday in L.A. County. During the same period a day before, there were only 98, said California Highway Patrol Officer Patrick Kimball. In San Diego, the CHP reported 283 traffic collisions in the first 16 hours of Friday, up from an average of 75.

“I’ve never seen such a disproportional amount,” Kimball said. “I double-checked three times; I couldn’t believe it.”

The southbound 5 Freeway in Orange County was closed about 2 1/2 hours during the morning commute because of an accident involving a big rig and at least three vehicles. On the 210 Freeway in Pasadena, a big rig overturned, blocking two transition lanes to a tunnel west of Lake Avenue. A motorist in Duarte died when his car went over the side of the rain-slick 605 Freeway into a ditch.

The CHP struggled to keep up. “There’s accidents pretty much on every freeway right now,” CHP Officer Jose Nunez said in the morning. “It’s almost too many” to list.

In Big Bear, the rains caused the closure of California Highway 18. California Department of Transportation officials said there was a significant slide in the Arctic Circle portion of the highway, so it was closed from Big Bear Dam to Snow Valley. But the weather system did not result in major problems related to snow.

Heavy rain in the high desert led to a close call for a 14-year-old girl who tried to cross the Oro Grande wash in Victorville as she walked home from school. She was swept into fast-moving waters filled with lumber and trash. Members of a city grounds and maintenance crew clearing debris from the sides of the wash near the Green Tree Golf Course heard her cries for help.

Sergio Banuelos, the crew’s 38-year-old foreman, said he ran into the 3-foot-deep water and caught the girl but was immediately swept away by a current that he said was racing at more than 40 mph. When he tried to grab a rake that fellow crew member Jason MacDowell extended into the wash, MacDowell was also swept into the water.

As the three were carried through a tunnel under a roadway, Banuelos’ leg and shoulder hit one of the overpass’ concrete supports, slowing the trio down enough that Banuelos could push the girl to safety before he and MacDowell scrambled out, he said.

Hundreds of homes near the Rose Bowl were without power Friday night because of storm-related damage.

In Orange County, Modjeska Canyon had been on edge ever since forecasters predicted rain. On Thursday night, residents listened intently inside Fire Station 16 as fire officials warned that there could be evacuations if the rains proved strong enough.

On Friday, they awoke to the pinging sound of hard rain. As they were told to leave their homes once more, it was too much for some of them.

“I just don’t want to leave again,” Karen Buller said as she burst into tears, sitting in her car on the shoulder of Santiago Canyon Road. Overhead helicopters buzzed, looking for signs of landslides, and heavy-duty graders and fire equipment rumbled into the neighborhood.

“I know if I go past that sheriff right there, they’re not going to let me back in,” Buller said. “I’ll be out of my home again, for I don’t know how long.”

Brown, the Orange County firefighter, said he doubted this would be the last time.

“I kind of hesitate to say this to residents,” he said, “but this is going to keep happening throughout the winter.”

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