Just as the scorching fires were over, the first rains of the season fell on Southern California on Thursday, causing mudslides that forced dirt, rocks and debris from the burned-out hills and raised fears that this was just the beginning of a long and destructive winter.
Hardest hit by far was the Orange County coastal community of Laguna Beach, where the slides sent a wave of muck through the streets, damaged two dozen homes and a number of cars and caused the closure of Laguna Canyon Road.
In Malibu, where fires raced through the canyons last week, a mudslide shut down all but one lane of Pacific Coast Highway, as residents filled sandbags in anticipation of the next round of slides. The mud and debris on the highway took work crews about six hours to clear.
The damage was produced by relatively little rain--between a quarter-inch and a half-inch in most areas.
A second coastal storm system, carrying a 60% chance of rain, is expected to move into Southern California this morning. Slide experts say the rains may be the opening salvo of a perilous season. The brush fires that raged out of control for almost two weeks, taking three lives and destroying more than 1,100 structures, burned vegetation off more than 200,000 acres in six counties. The denuded hills--where reseeding began only a few days ago--are ripe for mudslides because there are no plants to hold the dirt in place.
"This winter has a tremendous potential for disaster," said Douglas Hammond, the chairman of the USC geological sciences department. "The more cover that can be grown out there, the better. There's not a lot we can do about the rain."
Terry Huff, an agent with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Soil Conservation Service, also expressed great concern, especially after a helicopter survey Wednesday of the area burned in the Calabasas/Malibu fire.
"We're concerned because of the extent of the burn," Huff said. "The hydrology has changed significantly and we expect some major water flows down the canyons to the ocean."
Huff said the extreme heat of the fire had also increased the possibility of landslides because rainwater cannot penetrate as deeply into the soil. The fire caused minerals and organic materials to fuse, creating a natural catch basin for water to collect, then start moving downhill, he said.
In Laguna Beach, as many as 25 houses suffered some damage Thursday morning, officials said, and three homes were flooded with muck as deep as five feet in some rooms. Although no one was injured, dozens of people fled their neighborhoods.
Even as residents and city officials sought to clean up the mess, they carted out sandbags and braced for more rains.
"Right now, we don't need any rain of any degree," Police Chief Neil J. Purcell Jr. said. Forecasters said the incoming storm, moving rapidly southward from the Pacific Northwest, has the potential to bring 1 to 1 1/2 inches of rain to the mountains and and up to half an inch in coastal and valley areas. The new storm may produce snowfall down to the 4,000-foot level of Southern California mountains, the National Weather Service said.
Hillside residents in Laguna Beach said they were awakened before dawn by the sound of thunder, rain and a river of debris passing by their homes.
Some looked out windows to see patio furniture, tree stumps and even once-parked cars streaming past them on hilly streets and slopes, washed away in a torrent of water and mud.
Resident David Battersby said he watched as a dozen cars floated down Canyon Acres Drive, stacking against one another.
"They were just down there like Tinker Toys, banging up against each other," he said.
Canyon Acres was one of several Laguna Beach neighborhoods that suffered a double dose of misfortune--first the wildfire of two weeks ago, then Thursday's slides.
"I thought I was going to have a quiet morning," Laguna Beach Mayor Lida Lenney said as she looked out her office window at the mud-caked downtown streets. "My God, what a mess."
Officials said they had had little time to sandbag and stabilize the ground after the fire, making the town ripe for mudslides from 0.6 inch of rain.
In many cases, workers had not yet secured some hay bales intended to absorb the rains, and many of them floated down city streets in the torrent of water.
Hillside residents in the Laguna Beach area have become all too familiar with mudslides over the years. The most devastating was in October, 1978, when about 60 homes were destroyed or damaged in Bluebird Canyon after the hillside gave way.
"Southern California basically gambles with the way we develop our land," said Hammond of USC. "Some homes are very much at risk."
In Topanga Canyon, the site of another fire, residents poured into Fire Station 69 Thursday morning in search of sandbags--thousands of sandbags--to help them weather the next test by the elements.
Firefighters handed out nearly 2,000 of 5,000 the small nylon bags they had.