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Mudslide threat forces residents from homes

January 20, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
The threat of mudslides in the Station Fire burn area is forcing residents from hundreds of homes in Tujunga, La Crescenta, La Canada Flintridge, Glendale and Acton.A flash flood warning was issued for areas affected by the Station Fire in L.A. until 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Due to looming dangers of possible mudslides, many homes have been evacuated in those burn areas.

Steady rain fell all afternoon Wednesday in La Canada Flintridge. Fortunately, so far there aren't any major flooding problems due to all the prep work done with K-rails and sandbags.

Approximately 270 homes were affected by the mandatory evacuation orders, and most of those residents have left. After consecutive days of downpour, residents are wondering just how much rain these charred hills can handle.

The heavy rainstorm pounded the foothills Wednesday afternoon and it brought with it strong rivers of muddy water. The K-rails were doing their job keeping the streaming rain away from homes, but residents worry all this rain will trigger mudslides.

"The storm in November, that micro-burst we had up here, we had a lot of mud. We were four feet deep," said Steve Brown, a La Canada resident.

Brown's backyard is right next to a steep hill. He set up a small fortress consisting of barricades held by railroad ties. He hopes this will stop the mud.

"I know it's coming, and I'm hopeful and fairly confident that what we've done to protect the house will work," said Brown.

Brown decided to leave as soon as the evacuation orders went issued. L.A. County Sheriff's deputies began going door-to-door at 9 a.m. in La Crescenta and La Canada, and they planned to complete the evacuation by 1 p.m.

Residents were warned that rescue crews might not be able to come to their homes during an emergency. Still, Delos Tucker and his wife Frances decided to stay and ride it out.

"We've been here for 100 years. We might as well stay a little bit longer," said Frances Tucker.

Most residents like Tom Burrows are playing it safe and getting out.

"I lost part of the front yard once. With that debris basin filling, when that all came down, we had a flood," said Burrows.

Crews were in the area until late Wednesday afternoon moving mud and debris that came down overnight. Officials say there simply isn't enough time.

"It's the constant rain that's going to cause the most problem because it doesn't give the county public works folks an opportunity to re-clean out the debris basin because it doesn't give time to dry to re-clean them out," said La Canada Assemblyman Anthony Portantino.

Residents are still anxious about the bigger storm ahead Thursday, and they hope that the charred hills will hold.

Residents can call the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works at (626) 458-5100 for information about the evacuation areas.

A mandatory evacuation order was also issued for residents living in the Sierra Madre burn areas.

Teams of deputies have been going house-to-house since Wednesday morning.

Tons of mud collecting as six-feet-high rolled down streets in Sierra Madre Monday.

Despite the evacuation orders, many home owners are still sticking around.

The city cannot force them out, but they need to sign waivers saying they understand that they could be stuck in case they need to be rescued.

For now, Skyline Drive residents Christopher Adde said he's not down for the count. His neighbors are giving it their best shot in round three of what seems like a never-ending boxing match with Mother Nature.

"Today, we're just waiting to see what happens. Supposedly a stronger storm, who knows what that's going to bring down?" Adde said.

"Actually, we had about 16 tons of mud falling in the street," describes Andy Dotson, another Sierra Madres resident. Officials ordered all Sierra Madre residents in the upper and lower canyons to evacuate.

"We can't stress enough that everybody has got to go. Please go, it's very important. Up in this canyon, right now, it's dangerous," Dotson said.

Dotson, who lives in the upper portion of the canyon, saw firsthand how mud can surge so fast that it can knock down anything in its path. Dotson built a makeshift fence to fight off the mud.

"I saw Mr. Dotson up there, shoveling around his galleries and putting boards up, and we're going to hold it at bay," said Adde.

A pink ribbon at the front door of a home signifies that the residents will stay at their own risk. City officials need to know that there is somebody inside in case they get trapped.

In this match with nature, city workers are the referees. They're asking residents not to stick around, but many refuse to go down.

"What else would we choose to stay? We're tough up here," said Adde.

Wednesday's forecast predicts up to three to four inches of rain, which can easily cause a big mudflow.

Those living in parts of Glendale bordering the Station Fire area were also ordered to evacuate Wednesday.

Mud coursed down the hillsides of the upper reaches of Glendale. Pressed up against the steep hills at the end of Boston Avenue, many Glendale homes sit empty, because residents heeded the evacuation orders.

"We made 344 contacts as of 11 o'clock, and out of the 344, we only had four outright refusals," said Sgt. Tom Lorenz of Glendale police.

Residents bordering the Station Fire burn areas were prepping for third storm bringing their fourth straight day of rain.

"It's a mess, but hey, it's Mother Nature, you can't help it," said Steve Voleti, a Glendale resident.

Before evacuating, Voleti was trying to drain his pool, which was already hit by mudflow.

"It happened so quickly, within five minutes, so by the time I looked out the window and I ran out, I started shifting sandbags, and I realized that wasn't going to do the job," said Voleti.

In the months following the Station Fire, Voleti said he spent thousands shoring up his hillsides and cleaning up after mudflows.

The same goes for Barry Powell, another Glendale resident.

"I've had more geologists and fire people up here, and they're all really nervous about that hillside," said Powell.

Powell's home sits right below the Quail Canyon debris basin. He said that he's not sticking around to see if the basin overflows.

"I'm not going to roll the dice. There's no reason to do that. You got lives involved, and we've got other means to handle this, so it's no big deal," said Powell.

The 28 debris basins within the Station Fire burn areas are the first line of defense for the homes below. L.A. County Works crews spent months clearing them out, but if they become overwhelmed, emergency officials say there is little they can do.

"If that debris starts coming down, this here is the flow, and if you're up in those areas, there is no way that the fire department or the police department is going to be able to get up here to help you," said Lorenz.

Officials say that some debris basins reached 80 percent capacity after Monday's rain. The concern is that the basins will fill up quickly and spill over.

Though almost all Glendale residents complied with the evacuation orders, in La Canada and La Crescenta, 473 evacuation orders were issued Wednesday, and 115 refused to leave.