Friday, November 30, 2007

Fire and Floods in Orange County

Just weeks after the Southland wildfires, Orange County residents are being evacuated from their canyon homes amid heavier-than-expected rains. The Los Angeles Times has the story:

Orange County officials ordered mandatory evacuations of Modjeska and Williams canyons this afternoon as heavier-than-expected rains continued to pound Southern California, snarling the morning commute and prompting rising concerns about mudslides in canyon areas burned in the October brush fires.

Sheriff's officials prepared to go door to door in burn areas considered at high risk for flash flooding, starting with about 300 houses. Additional teams were being put together in case deputies needed to alert homeowners in nearby Trabuco and Silverado canyons, authorities said. Another team of deputies was patrolling the canyons looking for signs of trouble.

A care center for those heeding the evacuation orders was opened at El Modena High School in Orange.

A second band of rain mixed with showers was expected to arrive this afternoon, prompting concerns that the afternoon commute would be equally bad and that mudslides might be triggered by day's end.

Southern California has been experiencing its driest year on record, with less than 4 inches of rain in downtown Los Angeles before today. Weather officials said they wouldn't have a tally of today's precipitation until this afternoon.

Orange County officials opened their emergency operations center in the morning in anticipation of possible mandatory evacuations of canyon communities. Those areas are particularly vulnerable to floods and slides because the recent fires burned away much of the vegetation on the canyon's sides that would have soaked up the rain, said Bryan Brice, a battalion chief with the Orange County Fire Authority.

Residents of Modjeska Canyon, hit hard by last month's Santiago fire, made their way out of the tightknit community on narrow roads already made treacherous by mud and downed branches. They had been alerted by a community group about 9:45 this morning to begin preparing for possible mandatory evacuations.

Several hundred residents gathered last night at the local volunteer fire department for an emergency meeting, where they were warned about the extreme danger.

"It's not an if, it's when," said Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather.

Mudslides, officials said, are often silent, giving no notice they are about to occur. State fire authorities told those gathered that as little as two-tenths of an inch of rain in 15 minutes, or half an inch in half an hour, could lead to the "loss of life and homes." Prather cautioned residents to remain vigilant, even if they are told to evacuate multiple times over the coming months.

"If you're anything like me you might get apathetic, and you can't do that," he said.

Len Nielsen of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection underscored the seriousness of the danger.

"You have to realize driving into this canyon how scary it is," said Nielsen, a member of the state's burn area response team. "If it was raining right now, I would not be at this meeting. I would not have come in here."

As a steady rain fell this morning, Barry Crow, 38, got ready to again leave the home he moved into only two weeks before the fires.

"It feels like deja vu, only wetter," he said.

While those living in burn zones brace for evacuation orders, commuters dealt with numerous accidents and long delays on Southern California roadways.
I'm fine where I am.

I stepped out this morning to take my oldest son to school and had to run back in to get my boy's jacket. The rain is nice - we need the water. But my first thought was about the fires. We wouldn't be having any more blazes, but the charred hills would likely get mudslides, and so forth.

My thoughts and prayers are going out to those affected.