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Rain, mudslides a worry in scorched Big Sur

Residents and officials are concerned about the high risk of floods and debris flows after summer's massive fire.

September 12, 2008|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Two months after major wildfires blackened nearly a quarter of a million acres of its forest land, Big Sur has returned to a normal tourist hum, and a mild Indian summer has set in.

But longtime residents worry about the badly scorched land and the flooding and mudslides that could come with winter rains.

Although government agencies say help is on the way, disaster-weary residents worry that it won't be enough and may come too late to stave off the potentially catastrophic effects -- not just on tourist spots but on the crucial artery of Highway 1.

Other fire-ravaged communities across California are faring better.

Near Goleta, more than 9,000 acres of rugged terrain stripped of vegetation in the Gap fire soon will be coated aerially with a glue-like substance that is embedded with fertilizer.

The mixture of wood and paper fibers, water and a plant-based binder will absorb rainwater and coax faster regrowth of native chaparral, said Tom Fayram, Santa Barbara County's deputy director of public works.

In Butte County, state Office of Emergency Services crews are fanning out to review the burn damage and suggest needed repair, said agency spokeswoman Tina Walker. The Telegraph fire that briefly threatened Yosemite National Park is not expected to pose any significant flooding risk, federal officials say.

As for Big Sur, a federal fix-it plan promised at the end of August has yet to be produced, said Lisa Kleissner, spokeswoman for the Coast Property Owners Assn., representing 1,500 homes in the area. Residents are dependent on the federal report because 83% of the burned area is in national forests.

"All the main businesses and many homes are threatened, but in particular between Big Sur campground and Big Sur River Inn," Kleissner said. "We can't do work on lands that aren't ours, even though it would impact our properties."

Rainfall in the Big Sur area typically begins in October and averages 43 inches a year.

Phil Yenovkian of Monterey County's Office of Emergency Services said his office's effort can't start before the federal plan. "Our action list," he said, "will be based on a document that we are still waiting for."

Kathy Good, a spokeswoman for the Los Padres division of the U.S. Forest Service, said the federal report, produced by the Burned Area Emergency Response team, is still being reviewed but should be ready by mid-September. "I'm sure people are getting anxious about the winter season," Good said. "They will turn it around as quickly as they can."

Brent Roath, of the Burned Area Emergency Response team, said that proposed projects include repairing service roads and controlling erosion on an extensive trail system within the Los Padres National Forest. A weather-alert system to let downstream residents know when flooding is likely is also being suggested, Roath said.

But the burned area is simply too large and too steep to apply protective mulch, he said. The first rains would wash them away. It's also impractical, he said, to do any large-scale logging of dead trees before winter.

The California Department of Transportation and emergency response team members have identified places on Highway 1 where debris flows may occur. They are planning to set up catch basins for the rocks and material that slide across the highway during severe storms.

"If the winter is a reasonable one, we get good vegetative recovery," Roath said. "That's what we are really counting on in this case."

In Santa Barbara County, officials are most concerned about mud and flood waters near Goleta's old town and above the Santa Barbara Airport, said Fayram, the public works manager. The county has a $4.7-million fix-it list that includes installation of debris racks to catch boulders and shrubs and large sediment basins near the airport, he said.

It is also holding community meetings to inform the public about plans and to hear their concerns, said Supervisor Janet Wolf, whose district includes much of the burned area. "The Gap fire covered seven watersheds immediately above the cities of Goleta and Santa Barbara," Wolf said. "The issue of flooding is paramount."

Big Sur is at higher risk than other areas because of its steep topography. A 2005 report by the U.S. Geological Survey found that the rugged area is one of the most landslide-prone stretches of the California coast. Slides frequently close down Highway 1, depriving Big Sur of tourism dollars.

A 1983 landslide near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park closed the highway for more than a year and necessitated $7 million in repairs. In 2005, heavy rains again shut down the southern approach to Big Sur.

Janet Lesniak, owner of the Big Sur River Inn, said she wasn't waiting for officials to save her business. Before the first rains hit, she plans to install concrete K-rail south of her inn to divert flood waters from the nearby Big Sur River.

This being Big Sur, Lesniak, an artist who does oil paintings, said she would paint the homemade concrete channel in bright colors. What she hopes to avoid is a repeat of the winter of 1972, when heavy rains caused muddy floods across the inn's property, destroying one building. Big Sur residents hope for a gentle winter but fear a deluge, she said.

"We live in this spectacular place, and it comes with so many gifts," Lesniak said. "But it also comes with challenges. Every morning, the first prayer is for half an inch of rain every other day."

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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