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Having seen fire, bracing for rain

Some Modjeska Canyon residents plan to stay put if told to evacuate because of slide threat.

January 04, 2008|Christopher Goffard | Times Staff Writer

If meteorologists are right, the storm of the year may be on its way to Steven Hand's backwoods patch of eastern Orange County, potentially transforming the steep, charred slopes encircling his family home into fast-moving rivers of mud and rocks.

He knows all this, but on Thursday he just shrugged.

"You can't stop a mudslide," said Steven, 16, who has lived on his family's isolated 14-acre plot in Modjeska Canyon his whole life. If an evacuation order comes, he and his family plan to do just what they have done before: ignore it.

Residents here, deep in Orange County's backcountry, tend to be independent souls, tested relentlessly by fire and rain. During the Santiago wildfire that roared through the canyons in October, some stayed rooted to protect their homes and help neighbors.

But authorities worry that the approaching band of storms, which could drop as much as 8 inches of rain in mountain areas, could hit the canyon hard.

Since the fire that stripped Modjeska Canyon of protective vegetation, leaving it vulnerable to mudslides, county officials have been leery of the rain. Several times in recent months, they have ordered canyon residents to evacuate, at times for what turned out to be only a mild wet front.

Most ignored the orders, gambling the canyon would hold up fine, and so far they have been right.

But Nadeem Majaj, Orange County's flood control division manager, urged prudence. "We still don't know how it will react in future storms," he said.

Majaj didn't know how many canyon residents complied with evacuation orders in recent months, but said "we believe the number was quite low" and pointed to "the self-sufficient character of the canyon residents."

Greg Bates, who has lived in the canyon for 20 years, keeps three horses, two llamas and a donkey. He stopped by a lot at the base of Modjeska Canyon Road on Thursday to collect sandbags to shore up his property. He stayed put during the last evacuation order, monitoring the weather.

"At the last rain, nobody came to take the animals," said Bates, 51. "We can't leave the animals here." This time, he plans to leave if the rainfall begins to look too intense, keeping an eye on the radar maps.

Leo Hetzel, a 32-year canyon resident, is a retired photojournalist who has seen the results of natural disasters firsthand. He would rather evacuate than take chances, especially since his house sits beneath a charred mountain, as does his daughter's house next door.

"There's nowhere to run if it hits us," said Hetzel, 67. "The mountain can come down."

Despite the threat of natural disasters, he said, he loves the quiet of canyon life. Next to his house is a creek surrounded by alders and oaks, sycamores and eucalyptus. "I raised two kids here, and they turned out OK," he said. "We've never had a drive-by shooting in the canyon."

Hetzel doesn't know of anyone else who wants to leave the canyon, either. "People are not bailing out," he said. "They're tough out here."

Roger Manning, 41, who has spent his life in the canyon and is living on property that has been in his family since the 1950s, said he didn't budge for the last two evacuations and will stay put until he feels there is real danger.

In stories about natural disasters, Manning said, "there's always a handful of people that stay and save their homes. And there's always a handful of people who stay and are buried alive or burn to death. So it's a gamble."

Loading sandbags into his Ram pickup Thursday afternoon, Manning smiled at the notion that the canyon is populated by especially rugged, defiant individualists. "I don't think we're any different than people living in Irvine," he said. "I'm sure they'd stick it out too."

Steven Hand, the 16-year-old, even stuck out the October fire, staying behind to fight it with his father despite repeated entreaties from officials. The Hands had soaked the surrounding vegetation for days before the blaze arrived, then attacked the flames with their hoses. They saved the house.

Steven said he has no desire to leave the canyon, where "I can throw a party with a hundred people and none of my neighbors complains, because they can't hear it."

Now, with the anticipated rainfall and potential mudslides, he said he plans to block the garage with straw bales and shore up the front door with sandbags.

"Anyone that's lived here at least 10 years, they would never leave," Steven said. "This is their paradise."

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christopher.goffard@latimes.com

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