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Cover Story : A Mountain of Tears : Neither Fires Nor Floods Dampen Spirit of Those Who Want to Live in Las Flores--and Nowhere Else

March 10, 1994|RON RUSSELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Name a year and they can name a disaster. There was the 1970 wildfire. The 1984 mudslides. The 1992 flood. And, worst of all, last November's firestorm.

For decades, residents of Malibu's Las Flores Canyon have managed to overcome what nature dished out.

They built retaining walls in the face of floods, planted vegetation to ward off landslides, cleared brush and installed sprinkler systems to protect their houses against fire.

But now that entire mountains have been denuded by the area's worst wildfire in memory, several hundred canyon residents have ever more reason to worry about floods, mudslides and debris flows.

"It's like living next to a time bomb," said Valerie Titus, who sleeps on the living room floor whenever it rains for fear the hillside behind her apartment will crash through the bedroom wall. Two years ago, she lived a few hundred yards up the canyon when a raging Las Flores Creek swept through her triplex and destroyed her possessions. Last month she lost her car in a mudslide.

Yet, like many Las Flores residents, Titus has no desire to leave. "Even with all its troubles, this is a remarkably beautiful place to live," she said.

A rugged gash on the coastal landscape, Las Flores Canyon stretches for more than a mile from north to south, hemmed by mountains on three sides and by the Pacific Ocean at its lower end.

The canyon's namesake creek, which once brimmed with salmon and steelhead trout, is a magnet for deer and other wildlife. Its shady glens and ocean vistas have made it popular with writers, artists and others looking for solitude.

But there is a price: Calamity seems never far away.

This is by no means Malibu's only ecological trouble spot.

A 1983 landslide at nearby Big Rock Mesa damaged or destroyed 240 homes, causing $97 million in damage. During heavy rains, muddy debris from eroding bluffs often force the closure of Pacific Coast Highway and inundate expensive beach houses.

But Las Flores Canyon's precarious geology, coupled with its popularity as a locale for million-dollar country homes, places it in a league of its own when it comes to natural disasters.

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The lower canyon lies at the foot of a giant landslide, which in 1984 gobbled up eight hillside homes and wiped out half a mile of Rambla Pacifico Road, cutting off the only direct route to Pacific Coast Highway for 550 residents on the canyon's west rim. The slide changed the course of Las Flores Creek, shoving it 60 yards to the east. Engineers say the slide still poses a threat to the creek and to Las Flores Canyon Road, the only artery leading out of the canyon.

Based on federal flood insurance maps, officials say 10 properties in the lower part of the canyon that were destroyed by the fire--and at least eight that weren't--are in an area likely to be severely flooded during prolonged torrential rains.

To the east, another 50 properties on Las Flores Mesa, whose residents must traverse the canyon to escape fire, are in danger of isolation if the canyon were to flood.

And officials are concerned that it will. Because of November's fires, soil experts say the area could face increased danger from floods and mudslides for the next eight years. It may take that long, they say, for the vegetation--vital for absorbing and dispersing rain--to regenerate.

In the fire's aftermath, Malibu's elected officials have hurriedly begun seeking solutions to the hazards. And they hope to persuade the federal government to help foot the bill. Depending on what is attempted, costs could range from $8 million to tens of millions of dollars.

The effort, moreover, is controversial.

Residents, including fire victims eager to rebuild in the canyon, heaped scorn on a study released this week that, among other things, suggested the part of the canyon in a flood plain be declared unsafe for habitation.

"We're here because the canyon is a great place to live," said Susan Shaw, who, with her partner, lost a creek-side home to the fire and wants to rebuild. "We don't want to be told that our way of life is expendable."

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Bad luck with the elements aside, Las Flores Canyon has had other troubles.

To keep outsiders off his sprawling rancho that stretched along the entire Malibu coast, pioneer settler Frederick H. Rindge installed gates at the mouth of the canyon in 1894. Travelers between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara needed permission to pass.

The gates were the focal point of a court battle between Rindge's widow and the state that lasted 22 years and was aimed at protecting Rancho Malibu as a private preserve.

The dispute was slow to end, even after the U.S. Supreme Court granted the state an easement through the ranch to build what became Pacific Coast Highway.

In 1923, when state employees arrived to begin work on the road, they were met at Las Flores by 40 armed ranch guards who kept the workers off the property for three days. The highway finally opened in 1929.

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