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Burn areas must evacuate by Tuesday 10 a.m.

February 8, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Residents in erosion-vulnerable hillside neighborhoods of La Canada Flintridge, La Crescenta and Acton will be under mandatory evacuation orders Tuesday due to mudslide risk in the Station Fire burn area.Officials gave the mandatory evacuation order Monday night to head off the oncoming storm. Residents of more than 500 homes were told to finish the evacuation process by 10 a.m. Tuesday. Rain is forecasted to start falling in the afternoon, gaining momentum to a heavier downpour by evening.

Anxiety is high and the work is nonstop. Rows of dump trucks full of debris are going back and forth, loading and unloading tons of mud from the catch basin at the top of Ocean View Boulevard.

In a race against Mother Nature, volunteer work crews dug through the 4 feet of mud that filled Pam Land's home and front yard.

"I was in a state of shock. I mean, it was completely surreal," said Land.

"What we're trying to do is build up a barricade right here, so that the water actually diverts back onto the road," said Giulliano Prieto of Prieto Engineering. "We have no other options except for just cutting down and then creating a new road actually for the water to flow out."

With more rain on the way, residents are desperate to protect what is left after Saturday's devastating flash flood.

At the McLaughlin house on Ocean View Boulevard, the mudslide is already on the back of their minds. They were scrambling on Monday to get ready for the next big storm set to his Tuesday.

"The first thing we did is we boarded all the windows because if it happens again, we have no protection. All our windows are broken and caved in," Heather McLaughlin said.

The mudslides began early Saturday morning, with residents waking up to the sound of a massive mudslide coming down Ocean View Boulevard. Large boulders, tree and even cement K-rails were thrown down the street.

"My dad had watched his truck go down the street 'cause it was parked across the street," McLaughlin said.

She said her father tried to use a kitchen table to stop the mud from flowing in through the kitchen windows, but it was no use.

"I held my mom, basically, as she cried. My dad's at the porch, and we just watched the mud come into our house and go into the living room," McLaughlin said.

At the end of it all, 43 homes were damaged, and nine homes were red-tagged.

"We all thought we had worst case scenario in our minds, and that the K-rails would keep that back. Obviously, nobody had any idea the magnitude of what was to come," said La Canada Flintridge resident Kelly Schroeder.

"Right now, we're really tired, just because there's a lot of thinking going on at night, what we're going to do the next day, preparing for the rains tomorrow, and thinking how are we going to protect our house from future damage," Schroeder said.

"Look at this, my couch is in my pool, this was in my bedroom, and this is my dresser, this is our dresser drawers, and everything is gone," described La Canada Flintridge resident Damaris Laguna, as she pointed at her furniture scattered outside amidst mounds of mud.

Laguna and her family are going through the mud and debris looking for anything they can save, but there is very little left. Most of their possessions have washed away. The living room has 5 feet of mud, and their son's room is destroyed.

"It's hard to lose it all. It's going to have to be demolished," said Laguna.

A home video captured what the Laguna family woke up to on Saturday morning. Several feet of mud was flowing down the street, carrying boulders, cars and even K-rails. Forty-three homes were damaged and nine homes were red tagged.

"Three of us were sitting on that little rail, just huddled with each other, just thankful to be alive, thankful that we were together. We were all muddy and all wet and shivering and trying to avoid frostbite," Laguna described.

It's an overwhelming job to clean up this mess. The streets look like a warzone.

"We were warned, and this is what we expected, I mean, not to this degree," said another La Canada Flintridge resident Lynn Thompson.

The L.A. County Department of Public Works has a big job ahead of them. They have to clear out the 28 debris basins below the Station Fire burn areas in time for a new storm moving into the area later this week.

There were several large boulders inside the basins over the weekend, which is what started the mudslide.

Several dozen volunteers showed up in La Canada Flintridge on Sunday to help out with the cleanup effort. Volunteers are welcome, but they need to first be approved, likely by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. At this point, only residents are being allowed into the neighborhoods.

Hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of rocks, mud, water and logs are piled high all the way up to the brim of the Upper Shields debris basin in La Crescenta. Monday afternoon, the contents of this particular basin were too wet to remove, so the county is concentrating on basins dry enough to allow heavy equipment and trucks to work.

"We're concentrating on about six of the smaller one right now. We'll be as ready as we possibly can given this rest bit before tomorrow's storm," said Bob Spencer of L.A.'s Department of Public Works.

At Cook's Canyon at La Crescenta, mud and rocks buried the vertical drain behind the crypt dam in the basin. Crews were busy Monday clearing it out as nervous residents watched.

"I live down the street, and I just wanted to see what was happening here, because it is a concern down at our house and we have a couple of houses that are real low and if this overflows like it did the other morning and it clogs up down there, then we are going to have some problems down on our street," said Ray Stewart, a La Crescenta resident.

"An unending line up of dump trucks which is what we really like to see," described another resident.

Most critical is the Mullally Debris Basin at the top of La Canada Flintridge. Saturday, it disgorged a deluge of debris and swamped the neighborhood of Paradise Valley. Officials don't want a repeat so they cleared the boulder that blocked the drain and are now hauling out as much debris as they can. The county has 300 dump trucks hauling it all away but is rapidly running out of places to put it.

"We will be running out of room soon which is why we are looking at obtaining a fourth site and that's what the Governor was talking about this weekend, that we are hoping to be able to fast track the permitting process," said Spencer.

Another concern is, who pays for all this? After January's storm the cleanup cost $20 million and now they are starting all over again.

"We are hoping to get some money from the state and the federal government. The state has been pretty good by issuing an emergency order. The federal government has yet to do so," sad La Canada Flintridge Mayor Laura Olhasso.

If the federal government chips in, then residents would be eligible for aid and low cost loans. Right now, many of them are paying for the cleanup themselves. Also, even though no work went on at Upper Shields to clean up the debris basin, a skip loader and other equipment will be up there in the morning beginning the process, but hopefully, sufficient work can be completed before Tuesday's storm begins in force.

Residents learned that mudslides can strike without warning, and sweep down hillsides with deadly force. They are hoping that the next round of wet weather doesn't cause as much damage as before.

Ocean View Boulevard is lined with concrete K-rails weighing 4,000 pounds apiece, but they're still no match for the water and mud that ripped through this hillside community.

"It was like a full on river," described Cecilia Nava, a La Canada Flintridge resident. "It sounded like freight trains."

"The roar of the water, the rocks tumbling down the street, these K-rails sliding down the street, the wall of water had to be 10-feet-high," said George Allen, a La Canada Flintridge resident of 47 years.

The massive mudslide left in its wake boulders sprinkled through yards and the street. Cars and trucks were battered and flooded, and dozens of homes were heavily damaged by the muddy runoff. The buried gate in a yard serves as a good indication of just how deep the mud is. A home's sliding door appears more than half buried.

"When these mudflows get moving, they move incredibly fast. The mud is viscous like syrup, it's able to just float boulders and cars and other things," explained Michael Lamb, an assistant professor of geology at Caltech.

Lamb has been studying the Station Fire burn areas, and said these neighborhoods at the mouths of canyons are dangerous even if there were no fire.

That mud and debris continually build up in the mountains and can come down in tragic proportions when the winter rains start falling.

"Mouths of the canyons are very dangerous. You might think of it as a loaded gun. There's material loading up these channels, and the rain events are the triggers that send them out," explained Lamb.

Southern California has a long history of deadly slide events. The La Conchita landslide in 2005 killed 10 people and destroyed 30 homes. And in 2003, 15 people at a church camp in San Bernardino County were killed by a mudslide.

Nava, who watched the muddy waters raging down Ocean View this weekend, said she now understands the sheer power of a mudslide.

"Honestly, I think this was scarier than the fires were, because you can't outrun this and we were stuck. At least in the fires, we were evacuated and we had time to leave. Here, we had no time. It just hit us," Nava said.

Experts say that the massive Station Fire burned up much of the available fuel, so residents don't need to worry about another fire of that size in the near future. However, the recent mudslides from the winter rains did little to alleviate future mudslides from happening. Lamb said that there is still a lot of material stored in those hills, and the danger definitely still exists.