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Light rain relieves burn-area residents

February 2, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Though only a light rain was falling Tuesday afternoon, county officials were not taking any chances and worked all day emptying debris basins.The rain was much lighter than last week's storm, and worried residents breathed a sigh of relief.

"I'm not worried at all now, because the worst of the storm happened and the hills stayed up there, so I have a feeling that it's going to be okay. I'm not as terrified," said Ruby Block, a La Canada Flintridge resident.

Even with the mild conditions, county officials were not taking any chances. Crews worked all day Tuesday moving tons of dirt and mud and cleaning up the debris basins as quickly as possible.

It's a massive job to move tons of dirt and mud to clean up the debris basins as quickly as possible. Bulldozers and dump trucks were running continuously.

"They're coming and going since 7 o'clock in the morning," said Block. "They're cleaning up a lot and making room for everything and it seems like everything is under control."

The Mullally Debris Basin off of Ocean View Boulevard in La Canada Flintridge was left at near capacity after a week of strong storms. The rains dumped half a million cubic yards of mud and debris. L.A. County Public Works employees were trying to clear out more than two basins around the Station Fire zone.

"We have the debris basin system that does a lot, but there are times when the debris flows just get bigger and will overwhelm the system," explained Dr. Lucy Jones, Caltech.

Jones has studied the foothills, and she says even with all the rain we got last week, we've been lucky.

"The Thursday rain was a lot less than predicted. If the predicted rain had hit the Station Fire, a lot of the rain went farther south, we would have had debris flows that would've destroyed houses," said Jones.

About 250 homes in the La Canada Flintridge area had to be evacuated last week. More than six inches of rain drenched some foothill areas and officials weren't sure these hills would hold.

But now that residents had several days of dry weather, they feel a little better. They say the K-rails and sandbags did their job.

"Had it been what they predicted, I think we would have had a lot more trouble up here, but with my house and the K-strips, they've got it all roaring around, I'm in pretty good shape," said Tom Burrows, a La Canada Flintridge resident.

Just like last time around, residents are hoping that they won't need to evacuate.

"You can't be leaving your house and coming back. It's very stressful," said Neliya Ballard, a La Canada Flintridge resident.

Ballard placed rows of sandbags next to the K-rail bordering the edge of her property. She said she stayed home during the last round of storms.

"It was fine. It was scary but OK. We were ready to evacuate if we had to," said Ballard.

Carol Min's house is backed up right against a barren hillside. Min's family piled sandbags around their property as well, and they also say they won't hesitate to evacuate. A storm in December sent a cascade of mud right up to the side of their house.

"They've put up a wall there, they've put all sorts of hundreds of sandbags around the house, and it's really loud. I don't think anybody realizes how loud a mudslide can be. It's crazy," Min described.

Even with all of their efforts, officials say that it will take weeks to clear all the debris from those basins.

After Tuesday's storm passes, the forecast is slated to be fairly clear and sunny. The county says it will take advantage of those conditions and complete cleaning out the debris basins so that they can be ready for the next storm.

In Big Tujunga, county crews have also been busy since Saturday, cleaning out rocks and mud from Bryant Canyon, a side canyon that funnels down to the river at Big Tujunga.

So much debris poured down from the hillsides last week, that it buried a steel grate built to protect the culvert under Big Tujunga Canyon Road. If the culvert is blocked, the road goes.

"We're trying to get as much water flow through the tunnels so it doesn't over flow into the road," said Juan Ordorica, L.A.'s Department of Public Works spokesman.

Ordorica said that his crew will probably work another couple of days to reshape the stream, but he also said that they'll pull out fast if it starts raining again.

"The crew will be out of here as soon as it starts raining," said Ordorica.

All the muck that's been trucked away from stream beds and debris basins has to go somewhere, and much of it is being unloaded above La Crescenta near the Deukmejian Wilderness Park. So much mud has accumulated that a portion of the site has grown 25 feet in elevation in the past two months.

Residents of the burn areas don't seem too concerned about the new storm. Marian Westall lives in Haines Canyon and didn't evacuate last week, but after a stroll in the mountains last week, she thinks maybe she should have.

"It is really scary up the hill. There was a place with a stream going across the trail that was about three feet wide. Now, I measured it out, it's 170 feet wide," said Westall. "It was this huge plane. There was obviously an enormous flood up there, so that is kind of sobering."

Also in Haines Canyon, a utility crew was cleaning up after yet another utility crew. A dump truck cleaning out the debris basin hit an electric pole on the way out, and it needed to be replaced.

"The dirt loaders that went through this road, they kind of clipped the bottom of the pole there, so now it's in unsafe condition. So we're going to go ahead and replace that pole," said Kevin Kessler, an electrical contractor.

A baby goat trotted down the hills and surprised Kessler and his crew. They are guessing it belongs to someone in the neighborhood. If no one claims it, Kessler and his crew plan to adopt it and perhaps name it "Stormy."