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Frustrations over residents not evacuating

January 21, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Residents in the burn areas who aren't evacuating are generating serious frustration from L.A. County officials. Officials on Thursday again stressed the importance of residents heeding evacuation orders, practically begging the public to get out if told to do so.Mandatory evacuations are in place for residents as far north as Acton, and from La Canada Flintridge, over to Glendale and La Crescenta.

The Los Angeles Police Department is handling the Sunland-Tujunga burn areas, while the L.A. County Sheriff's Department is handling the La Canada Flintridge burn area. Both agencies went door to door, advising residents of the evacuation orders, but a handful of residents are refusing to leave. Those residents were required to sign forms on Wednesday that indicates they were told of the risks they are taking by staying put and not leaving.

Officials said the flood-control systems are working well, but that could change with dramatic results. The rivers and washes our brimming throughout the city, posing serious threats.

In the city of Los Angeles, 327 homes have been evacuated. Only about half of the residents under evacuation orders are actually complying. There are 468 homes in the La Canada Flintridge evacuation area, but about a quarter of those homes still have residents inside. About 60 percent of residents in Sunland and Tujunga have also ignored evacuation orders.

A flash flood watch has been issued for the entire city of Los Angeles. There are 4,800 homes without homes, 514 downed trees, and they are asking people to please stay off the roads if possible.

Despite the deluge and the flooding, there were positive signs as well. There were no major problems Thursday. A lot of water was coursing through gutters, but it's clear water, not filled with debris or mud, which is a good sign. There were some mudslides on side streets off of Ocean Avenue, but they were minor.

Mullally Debris Basin above La Canada Flintridge remained full of rocks and mud Thursday. But so far at least, the steel barriers and the channel below the dam were holding back spillover debris and just allowing water to flow through. County officials say it's doing what it's supposed to do.

"The system has been working as planned," said Gail Farber, L.A. County Dept. of Public Works spokesperson. "However, many of the debris basins are full. And so it's not safe to say that we're out in the clear just yet."

With saturated hillsides and the rain still falling, emergency officials are warning of rapidly changing conditions. Those who aren't evacuating are generating some serious frustrations.

"We're putting our firefighters and our police officers in jeopardy when they have to go into areas where they would rather not be right now because they have to continue to ask people to evacuate," said L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "We're only asking you to leave your home, your castle, your neighborhood because you're in jeopardy, you're in danger."

"For those that have not left, we've heard that the debris basins are near capacity. We anticipate that we will not be able to utilize the roads with four-wheel drive vehicles," said Los Angeles County Fire Chief Deputy John Tripp. "For those people that are still in the homes and are in those areas of threat, it is very likely we will not be able to reach you."

Fire officials are aware residents who have not evacuated and have deployed an additional 90 firefighters to the area, half of which are from urban search-and-rescue. But authorities warned there are no guarantees the first responders will be able to make it out to residents in the event of major mudslides.

Public officials continued to urge residents to leave. At last count, about 75 percent of La Canada-area residents had complied.

Even with additional warnings in place, there are still those who refuse to leave, no matter what the conditions are.

Henrick Hairapetian is one of them. He says he's staying because it's too much trouble to leave. He builds extreme-offroad vehicles for a living, and two of them are in his driveway, ready to take him out if there's a slide.

"It's very easy for them just to say it, 'Get up and leave your house for six, seven days and go stay at a shelter.' They have to be in our shoes," said Hairapetian. "No one's going to just get up and get out of the house for five, six days and go stay somewhere, especially when you have a big dog and this sort of thing. It's just a huge inconvenience."

"I feel safe. I've been through it before. We're stocked up. My wife is in a wheelchair, she's disabled, so moving her is like moving a hospital, and I'm just not up to that," said La Canada Flintridge resident Jack Wonderlick.

Authorities say it's very dangerous to stay, but they can't force residents to leave if they don't want to. Many of the residents who are staying live in houses that are up above the street, but that's no guarantee of safety if a big slide comes down.

Most residents in Glendale are abiding by the mandatory evacuations. Authorities have cleared out a number of streets, especially those up against the hillsides.

Glendale resident Barry 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've got lives involved, and we've got other means to handle this, so it's no big deal," said Powell.

"If we have to evacuate, then we will," said one La Canada resident. He scrambled to move plywood in front of his driveway, stacking sandbags just 30 minutes after officials issued yet another warning.

An early morning mudslide in a cul-de-sac at Ocean View Boulevard and Earnslow Drive didn't do any damage -- K-rails held up and diverted the flow -- but the threat of more slides increased as the day moves forward. Catch basins in the Station Fire burn area were full Thursday. Public works crews continue to clean small debris flows.