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Rooted in their canyon homes

Many residents of burn areas now facing the threat of floods have no intention of evacuating unless it gets worse.

December 08, 2007|Janet Wilson and My-Thuan Tran | Times Staff Writers

The pig stayed. As did her scraggly-haired owner Ted Metzger, his wife, Lori, two kids, and Jerry the orange cat and Tito the dog.

Like many denizens of eastern Orange County's rugged, eclectic Modjeska Canyon, the Metzgers were unmoved Thursday night by the third evacuation order in less than two months -- the second in a week.

Piggley, a 150-pound overgrown pot-belly sow, rooted deep into the dirt next to Santiago Creek and slept through the latest storm.

Worried county officials had called the mandatory evacuation when forecasts called for 1 to 3 inches of rain.

The concern was heightened by fears from federal hydrologists that there was a serious risk of mudslides in severely burned watersheds above Modjeska Canyon and two neighboring canyons.

Maps released by the U.S. Geological Survey on Friday backed up earlier findings: Because the Santiago wildfire burned so hot above the canyons at the end of October, there are not even charred roots left on many slopes. There is just a sheer, waxlike surface that could propel rainwater, boulders and debris downhill into creek beds that can roar through the inhabited canyons.

"Imagine a wall of mud coming down that creek in just seconds . . . a moving body of mud, water, whole trees, pieces of houses, cars, all mixed up like a chocolate milk shake," said Bob Scheibel, a structural engineer who lives in Modjeska Canyon.

Scheibel, who was flown on 9/11 to New York's World Trade Center site because of his expertise, said his neighbors in this rural outpost of Orange County are fooling themselves if they think it's safe to stay in their homes through repeated evacuations.

"They may run out of luck," he said. "It's not like a fire. By the time you hear it, it's here."

But repeated evacuation orders coupled with milder conditions than predicted reduce the effectiveness of the orders.

Nearly 2 inches of rain fell on Santiago Peak between 4 p.m. Thursday and 4 p.m. Friday, and slightly less than an inch fell in Modjeska Canyon. Although roads were muddy, there were no flash floods or major debris flows, according to Orange County's Resources and Development Management Department.

Officials have warned residents to expect more evacuation orders in the future and are concerned that evacuation fatigue could set in, resulting in residents' opting to ride out a storm only to put themselves in harm's way if disaster strikes.

"I don't want people to think that we're crying wolf," said Damon Micalizzi, Sheriff's Department spokesman. "What we do is err on the side of caution."

Deputies said that they knocked on nearly 1,000 doors in Modjeska, Williams and Silverado Canyons on Thursday but that only an estimated 40 households heeded the order.

Some longtime volunteer firefighters in Modjeska Canyon said they thought that number might be low, but that at least a third of the residents stayed put Thursday night, many rushing back early to make sure they wouldn't be prevented from going home.

"I think there is a risk if people grow complacent . . . based upon the threat not coming to a head with the most recent evacuations," Micalizzi said. "People need to remember that we are being vigilant for them."

As in many other tight-knit communities, there is a distrust of authority, a feeling that evacuations are being ordered for reasons other than to save lives.

"I'm not afraid of mud. We can go upstairs. . . . Man, we used to get hellacious storms, and nobody at the county warned us. If we got out, fine. If we didn't, tough luck," Metzger said.

"Now that we've got this," he said, pointing to a freshly built million-dollar stucco home. He suggested that such expensive new homes may have caused authorities to step up the pace of evacuations.

Longtime resident Marcus Lynch agreed. "I think everybody is trying to cover their butts. Nobody wants lawsuits."

Lynch spent the evening helping neighbors nail plywood to windows facing steep slopes or muddy creeks. He conceded that he slept uneasily because of the rain.

"I've got a house that backs onto the creek. I've got to keep an eye on it," he said. "I'm not saying I'll stay no matter what. I know the trees aren't there any more. I know the shrubs are all gone. If it starts to get bad, I'll grab my papers and go."

Many said they had their possessions packed and ready to go when things truly looked bad.

That attitude frustrated emergency responders.

"You can die with your stuff," said Bruce Newell, captain of Modjeska's Fire Station 16, normally soft-spoken but unusually blunt Friday as he and other firefighters returned to the canyon.

"You're also putting us at risk," he said of residents' decisions to stay, which he said caused emergency personnel to try to stay to protect them.

The firefighters evacuated at 11 p.m. to nearby Portola Hills, only to be called back a few hours later after the rain moved through faster than expected.

Other residents did pack up and go promptly.

"Every time they call one, I'm going," said Kris Temple. She remembers an El Nino year when one creek breached a bridge and ran across her yard, making a "twisted mess" of her fence.

Authorities have predicted more evacuations through this winter and next. Those who are abiding by the orders are developing relationships with area motels. The manager at the Hampton Inn in Foothill Ranch said he has relaxed his no-pets policy for the animal-friendly canyon crowd, adopting a sort of don't-ask, don't-tell policy.

As for Piggley the pig, she'll spend the rest of her days next to Santiago Creek, Metzger said. Come hell or high water.


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