California storm cuts power to thousands, brings threat of slides in wildfire areas

California storm cuts power to thousands, brings threat of slides in wildfire areas

13 October 2009

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A big Pacific storm swept into California on Tuesday with damaging winds and downpours that put a central community under an evacuation advisory because of mudslide fears, while residents near hillsides denuded by wildfires in the south braced for a dangerous overnight drenching.

The main fear was that the rains would cause mud and debris to rush down hillsides made bare from the summer fire, state fire spokeswoman Colleen Baxter said.

Homeowners filled sandbags and crews erected concrete barriers to channel potential flows from denuded slopes. Some residents took to placing boulders in key areas around their homes, hoping to blunt the destructive power of flash floods.

“We know the fires go through and do a lot of damage,” Los Angeles County fire Inspector Frederic Stowers said. “Within L.A. County, much of the slopes burned are going to be critical.”

Authorities urged evacuation of about 60 homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains town of Davenport, 50 miles south of San Francisco, where an August wildfire stripped vegetation from about 12 square miles of land.

More than 6 inches of rain fell in the Santa Cruz range, the National Weather Service said.

The storm slammed into a drought-stricken state that has become a checkerboard of wildfire scars small, big and gigantic. Flash flood watches were posted for burn areas dating back to early 2008.

Heavy rain, however, was taking its time reaching Southern California, where there was major concern in the Los Angeles foothill suburbs on the perimeter of the notorious Station Fire, which blackened 250 square miles of the Angeles National Forest in August and September, destroying dozens of homes and causing two deaths.

The fire stripped steep slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains that rise almost literally out of the back yards of homes, and the U.S. Geological Survey recently warned that even small storms could unleash massive flows of debris-laden water into communities.

Dorothy Kruegermann, 44, of La Crescenta, said she had looked at all the dirt and rocks that might be swept down from the mountains and was considering options.

“We might go to in-laws tonight,” she said.

“If it rains really really hard, and the creeks overflow, we get flooded out,” said hair salon owner Walter Claudio, 50, whose Santa Barbara hillside home was also evacuated because of the fire. Several neighbors’ homes had been damaged from the flames.

“We’ve been putting boulders on my property, to hold some banks close to the house,” Claudio said. “Everyone’s been really proactive the last two months, getting ready for this.”

At a park, volunteers filled and distributed sandbags.

“There were 50 people here yesterday all over that bin of sand like ants on candy,” said volunteer Steve Pierce, 66. “It’s a lot to deal with so soon after the fire, but we had a (community) meeting last week and that really motivated people.”

La Crescenta High School teacher Jim Smiley and his two sons filled their van with sandbags. He said a neighbor who had been through fire and floods in 1975 advised that mud would come down their street, go down their driveway and in through the front door.

“Based on what happened 25 years ago, we’re going to have 100 sandbags,” Smiley said.

It was the same scene northwest of Los Angeles in Santa Barbara, where a May wildfire destroyed many homes.

“It is obvious to me there are going to be some slides,” said resident Richard Payatt, 46. “It’s part of living in Santa Barbara with these beautiful hills. Occasionally you get fires, and then you get slides.”

High winds knocked out power to more than a quarter-million Pacific Gas & Electric customers in central and northern areas, but crews had managed to restore power to more than half, said utility spokesman Joe Molica.

Gusts also knocked down a 500 kilovolt transmission line near Moss Landing at the center of the Monterey Bay coast, forcing the state’s electrical grid manager to declare a power emergency. Authorities said loss of the line made it hard to get power from Southern California and urged the north to conserve.

The unusually strong fall storm also dropped a half-foot of snow in the Sierra Nevada and whipped up enough dust in the San Joaquin Valley to make air quality unhealthy in Kings, Tulare and Kern counties.

Associated Press Writer Brooke Donald in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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