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Foothill residents warned of evacuations

January 19, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
With the most powerful rain in a series of back-to-back storms expected to arrive by mid-afternoon Wednesday, public safety agencies plan to start evacuating 587 homes in foothill communities at 9 a.m. County firefighters hope to have the homes in La Canada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Acton and parts of Glendale evacuated by 1 p.m., Capt. Mark Savage said. Earlier plans would have had homes cleared by 5 p.m., but that could be too late.

Residents can call the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works at (323) 881-2411 for information about the evacuation areas.

People living in the burn areas kept a close eye on the hillsides again on Tuesday. Dozens of homes in Tujunga and La Canada Flintridge were evacuated after rains triggered mud flows on Monday, but all evacuations were lifted by Tuesday morning.

A number of hillside roads have been closed to the public due to the storms. Upper Ocean View Boulevard is open to emergency vehicles and residents only.

The trucks and tractors were busy all day clearing mud and rocks that rolled off the steep hillsides above Rock Castle Drive, filling up the spaces behind the protective K-rail barriers. Further up the road, Public Works crews raced the clock to clear logs, mud and rocks that overflowed a critical debris dam Tuesday at the end of Manistee Drive.

County officials say they can only clear the narrow channel below the Mullally debris basin, which was filled to capacity during the storm. The basin itself will remain 100 percent full until better weather.

"It has nowhere to go now so it will come spilling over and it will go down and then be diverted out into the canyon, but it's full," said La Canada Flintridge resident Olivia Brown.

Residents have been warned to be ready to evacuate at a moment's notice. Wednesday's storm is expected to be the worst of the bunch and Mullally could be the key.

"This is a debris basin that's in a very, very narrow canyon. The houses now have been constructed right up to the top of that canyon and when you but all of these factors together it makes it very difficult for us," said County Department of Public Works spokesman Bob Spencer.

All the streets in the area are lined with K-rails to channel the mud from Mullally down the street and into a side canyon. Many who live here have been impressed with the county's efforts to keep the debris out of their homes.

"The response to the first ones was rapid, it was excellent so that made me more comforted," said La Canada Flintridge resident Nina Wiktor.

Residents feel pretty good they've been able to ride out the first two storms, but they know the worst is yet to come.

The rainfall Tuesday washed out Big Tujunga Canyon Road, putting many residents on edge.

"It's called Pipe Canyon and it always plugs up and the drain is never big enough for it," said Tujunga resident Rocky Peterson. "The roads are covered with rocks and dirt and mud and stuff, and you just have to avoid them."

All throughout the foothill areas of Tujunga Canyon, crews were trying clear out storm drains Tuesday. As much as three feet of mud and water poured down the street in Blanchard Canyon.

The runoff did not damage homes, but it forced the residents of 83 homes to evacuate. Most evacuees were able to return home on Monday, but there were 21 homes in the Riverwood Ranch area that were under evacuation orders until Tuesday morning.

"I actually thought it would be a lot worse. I was kind of expecting it to come up in the yard a little bit more," said John Criswell, a Blanchard Canyon resident. "I guess we got lucky so far."

Heavy equipment cleared out most of the mud, but not all of it.

Resident Malcolm MacDonald blames the county, saying last year crews changed the grade on a portion of road despite pleas from the people who live there.

"We've got a number of engineers up there, and they said you really ought to put a pipe under that, the water's got nowhere to go," said MacDonald. "And they basically said, don't tell us how to do our jobs. Now we're paying the price."

When it rains heavily in Tujunga, mud and washout are the norm. Tujunga is just one danger spot along a 20-mile long stretch of burn area from Pasadena to Pacoima.

The view of Oro Vista Avenue is not of gold, but of mud smeared across the narrow street. A bulldozer scraped clear the main route on Tuesday, one of just two ways into Riverwood Ranch. The neighborhood is just one of several areas where authorities issued mandatory evacuation orders on Monday.

"I had to lock our gate up on the ranch so people wouldn't come down and get hurt or killed," said Bill Nichols of Riverwood Ranch.

With the ground already saturated, the threat of mudslides is even greater in the next approaching storm.

More than 100 residents in La Canada Flintridge also had to evacuate on Monday, and were able to return home late Monday night.

"I got everything packed. I'm all set to go. The car is unlocked, the key is in the ignition, and I'm out of here if I hear some rumbling coming down the hill," said Gary Stibal, a La Canada Flintridge resident.

Even before evacuation orders were issued, resident Steve Brown and his family weren't taking any chances.

"We got mud flowing into our backyard right now," said Steve Brown, a La Canada resident.

Brown and his family didn't wait. Even before the evacuation order was issued Monday, he packed his car and got ready to pull out. When mud started flowing down from a hillside into the yard behind his house, he decided it was time to leave.

"We're leaving. We can't do anything, so it's better to be safe and hope for the best," said Brown.

The foothills were devastated by wildfires, making them very vulnerable to flash floods and mudslides. As soon as the rain slowed Monday, bulldozers moved in, trying to clean the mud and debris in the catch basins as best as they could. Officials said there's no way they can catch up because there's a lot of mud and debris to clean, but they said most of the 26 catch basins in L.A. County are in good shape.