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For residents of the Station fire burn area, mud flows bring creeping fear

The Station fire threatened foothill residents for six days. Now a new danger lurks in the canyons, possibly for years.

December 17, 2009|By Thomas Curwen
  • After a rainstorm, Eric Grey stands in a field partially covered by mud and debris behind his home in La Canada Flintridge. He has built a wall and is working on a barricade to help protect his home from possible future mudslides.
After a rainstorm, Eric Grey stands in a field partially covered by mud and… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

When the rain started to fall, Janet Blake started to worry. From the picture window of her home, she could see the stream that was once her street become a torrent of stones, branches and mud.

The fire was easier, she thought; that was only six days of worry. The possibility of the mountain sliding down upon her is indefinite.

Her husband, Brian Hodge, worked in the other room, and Cooper, their yellow lab, stood beside her, his tail merrily striking the ornaments on the Christmas tree.

Janet and Brian live in the foothills of La Crescenta, a community that's filled with worry nowadays. The Station fire was only the beginning. Just as the smoke started to clear, the warnings began of debris flows barreling down the burned hillsides, and every drop of rain from last weekend's storm brought new cause for concern.

The rain beat loudly on the roof. Janet was not surprised. Saturday morning, like every morning since late September, she checked the National Weather Service website. She also read the mud4cast, an e-mail blast from the county, but she knows predictions are never entirely accurate.

The brunt of the storm would arrive later that evening and with it, up to 2 1/2 inches of rain. Runoff fanned across the street, roostertailing over rocks and branches, broadsiding the concrete barriers put up by the county.

Janet and Brian live on Canyonside Road, a charming cul-de-sac when the sun is shining but under threatening skies a chute for the debris that the mountains slough off. Last month, she and Brian returned from a concert downtown. As they got closer to home, the light drizzle turned to a downpour, and they narrowly made it into their driveway amid a deluge of muddy water, rock and boulders.

Weeks before, the county strategically placed a dozen or so K-rails, the waist-high concrete traffic barriers, to manage runoff. They jutted diagonally into the street here and there -- neighbor Lisa Dupuy said they made Canyonside Road look like a pinball machine -- but the precautions seemed to work. During the November storm, no property was damaged.

A sudden shift in the jet stream, though, and a different story could unfold.

The storm began to lighten; pelting turned to mist. There was a knock on the front door. Olin Younger wanted to see how Janet and Brian were faring. She would have invited him in, but a sheet of plywood, 4 feet tall, had been nailed across the bottom half of the entrance to keep the mud out. Cooper jumped up and rested his paws on the top of the barricade.

"Are you staying, Olin?" Janet asked.

"Oh yeah," Younger replied, even though his home was just below hers and in an exposed crook in the road.

"Well, we have a second bedroom if you need a place to stay," she said.

A few hours earlier Janet had been told by a fire official that if too much mud and debris covered the street, the county might not be able to clear it. Janet and Brian might not be able to drive out, he said. All afternoon, a skip loader had been working in the rain, scraping Canyonside Road of any accumulation.

Like her neighbors, Janet had long ago weighed the pluses and minuses of living in the foothills, and up until this year, the risks had made sense.

She and Brian moved here in 1983. They had just gotten married. She was from Queens, newly arrived in Los Angeles, and he was an attorney from Pasadena. He found the place, and she, a city girl whose taste ran more to theater than trees, had to adjust. Her ears popped three times when they drove up the mountain.

During the '84 Olympics, they watched fireworks over the Coliseum from their backyard. On especially clear days, they can see Catalina Island floating on the horizon. At night they watch for comets in the starry skies and during the winter delight when snow falls and stays.

Outside, the gray afternoon light grew dim. Wraiths of fog and low clouds settled upon the street, blurring distinctions. Gauzy figures with umbrellas passed. Lights from neighbors' homes reflected in the sheen of water, purling by. The road crew was still at work, now filling a dump truck.

The Station fire in August and September had been a test, but little did Janet suspect that it would set the stage for other questions. How do you stop a debris flow? Is it possible? Until plants returned to the slopes and set down roots, the mountain could fall upon them at any moment.

Brian wandered into the living room.

"I think we'll be OK," he said looking out the window.

During the fire, he had been reluctant to leave. Eventually they did, but she understood his hesitancy. Their home meant too much to him. What once had been a cabin of sorts -- built in the early '50s when La Crescenta was a faraway corner of L.A. County -- had become their sanctuary.

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