OJAI — When the storm clouds gathered over Matilija Canyon last week, Ventura County sheriff's deputies moved into the canyon, warning residents of the danger of floods and rock slides and recommending evacuation.
Only one person left.
When the rains arrived, the rock slides followed, briefly closing the narrow, twisting road that links the 72 families who live in the canyon with Ojai to the southeast and, officials fear, giving a hint of the potential problems facing the area throughout the rainy season.
Aftermath of Fires
The slide problems and the residents' determination to stick it out despite official warnings illustrate the difficulties facing Ventura County officials in the aftermath of major fires this summer and fall.
Officials warn that disaster may be only a major rainstorm away for thousands of people living in the picturesque Ojai Valley, tucked deep in the wrinkled mountains denuded by the flames.
"Nothing can be done to hold back the major flooding that is anticipated," said Gov. George Deukmejian after a recent inspection flight over Nordhoff Peak and the steep canyons that were burned off above this city of 7,000. He said the area is ripe for a major disaster.
County disaster services officials--fearful that as many as 2,700 homes could be destroyed--had asked Deukmejian to inspect the burn as part of the emergency response plan they have put together to mitigate the effect of a disaster they believe is inevitable in a heavy storm. When the rains come, they want a quick response to their call for state help.
Ojai is one of several areas expecting major mud slides and flooding, according to Ventura County Sheriff's Sgt. James Burell, the disaster response team's operations officer. Similar troubles may occur in Santa Paula or in smaller communities along other fire-struck river canyons.
The fires this summer and fall not only destroyed all vegetation, but their blast furnace heat baked the hillsides, creating a thick layer of hydrophobic soil that rains cannot penetrate, flood control experts said.
As a result, even modest rains can trigger flooding and mud slides, greatly magnifying the storm's impact.
Potentially the most hazardous area is Matilija Canyon, a narrow, twisting drainage northwest of Ojai. Although the rock slide from the recent rains blocked the road for only about three hours, Burell fears that in a later storm, the rocky mountainsides could slump in a massive slide causing worse damage.
But getting the stubborn canyon residents to evacuate is not easy. "We can only warn them. We can't force them to leave," Burell said.
"In a storm, the road will go first," he added. "Then comes the flooding, but by then it'll be too late for them to get out. If it's raining hard, we may not get the helicopters back in there for days. They'll have to be on their own."
Up in the canyon, Cliff Berlin stopped work on the new home he is building to talk about the flood threat. "If we evacuated every time there was a drop or two of rain, that would be ridiculous. . . . We've gotten through two big floods in 10 years OK."
Down the canyon a way, Karen Palmer stood suspiciously in her wooded driveway watching as two strangers approached through a bunch of barking dogs. Last summer's fire stormed all around Palmer's property, burning outbuildings and destroying a truck and trailer. It missed the home and several cages of colorful parrots that she raises.
'We're Not Leaving'
Early last week she had told a deputy sheriff to "go to hell" when he suggested that she and her husband should evacuate because it was starting to rain. "We know we are sitting on a powder keg here, but when the road went out in '78, the looters came walking up the canyon with empty backpacks. So we're not leaving," she said.
Down in the city of Ojai, the primary threat is to the northern subdivisions built in the canyons fingering up Nordhoff Ridge, according to Mayor Nina Shelley. "But," she warned, "it's possible all of the city will be flooded. We know that nothing can hold back nature."
To prepare for the worst, the mayor said 45 city, county and state employees have gone through a special training session at the Federal Emergency Management Institute in Maryland that was designed for the Ojai Valley by institute experts. They took with them their emergency response plans.
"They simulated road closures, the crash of helicopters, breaks in gas mains that resulted in explosions, overcrowded hospitals, just about everything that could happen, and we had to respond to each new crisis," Shelley said. "Our plans passed the test. We're as ready as we can be."
Those plans include procedures to evacuate half the town's population and the valley's 4,500 horses, the mayor explained.
Command Center Established
An emergency command center has been established in four trailers behind the Ojai Valley Inn.